By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief
Yahya Mohamad Hashid was born a stateless Rohingya in Sittwe, Myanmar (Burma). He later moved to Malaysia due to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of his people, as his dad had fled ahead of them and was given refugee status by the UNHCR.
In August 2015 as a teenager, Yahya and his family arrived in the United States. Aged 20 now and expecting his real estate license, he shared his story with Intersected to celebrate his culture as well as speak to barriers that his minoritized community faces.
When Yahya first arrived in the United States, he was the only member of his family who spoke any English, having taken classes for about a year in Malaysia. Because of his minimal knowledge and the lack of Rohingya interpreters available at the time, he was tasked with the hard work of translating everything for his family as he learned the language himself. This was particularly difficult when certain medical terms didn’t translate well or when the only additional translator spoke Burmese.
Rohingya people only have a verbal language, not a written one. The closest language to claim as their own is Arabic, because the Rohingya people are a Muslim minority from Myanmar (Burma), but that is a lingua franca among Muslims globally. Burmese is a written and verbal language different than the Rohingya language.
Despite the challenges, he was happy to have access to education, since that’s not something Rohingya people typically have back home. As a cis man, he has more cultural freedom to move about outside his house and pursue his own desires than his female peers as well, although culture is ever evolving.
Yahya shared that because he’s lighter skinned, he has been judged less than some of his peers, but he has been judged based on his speech. He’s found much more freedom of religious expression than he expected as a Muslim, but prejudices against refugees still affect him.
“Way of people telling you, way of people judging you, it does affect how Rohingya react…when I do hear those kinds of stuff, it do hurt my feelings,” Yayha admitted. The continued need for resources poses a challenge for the community as well.
Yahya is proud to be a part of his culture while thankful for the freedoms and opportunities he has in this nation. The 20 year old said the top three things he loves about being Rohingya are “everything.”
Today, Chicago competes with Milwaukee for having the largest Rohingya community in the U.S. The population has grown rapidly in the past five or six years, which has enabled Rohingya communities to become better resourced.
Since 2015, Yahya has noticed a significant change for the better: With more Rohingya came more translators, aiding in all aspects of life. Furthermore, the Rohingya Culture Center Chicago (RCC) opened in 2016, and the Rohingya Youth Association of Chicago (RYA), where he currently serves as a board member, was created at the start of 2020.
Their existence has allowed for more resource sharing, connections within the community, networking with other groups, and the ability to put on events and protests against the ongoing Rohingya genocide in Burma.
While Yahya celebrated how far he and his community had come — those resettled in the U.S. are no longer stateless, can practice Islam, and have opportunities to receive diplomas and degrees, for example — continued mentorship for newly arrived refugees and English language services remain pertinent as Rohingya continue to acculturate.
The Rohingya community in Chicago is very close knit. This contributes to the access community members have to resources, each other, and mosques, where Yayha is pleased to worship freely.
While Rohingya women have access to many mosques on the city’s Northside as well and now have opportunities for education, they are often treated differently because of how they dress, as other hijabis have experienced for decades.
Abdul Samad originally met Yahya through RCC, and they’re both part of RYA now. Samad founded the youth association one and a half years ago. Chicago’s refugee community at large shares a love for soccer, and the Rohingya community is no different. In fact, RYA’s main program at present is the United Soccer Club, which is currently fundraising.
Samad escaped Burma after the military burned down his house and village when he was a teenager. He traveled over sea and mountain to Malaysia, where his dad was. Because his dad was already there as a refugee, he was lucky to gain refugee status himself and be chosen for resettlement in the U.S. in November 2014 — but only after undergoing three interviews, health screenings, cultural orientation trainings, and multiple background checks.
As of March 2020, refugees selected for resettlement in the United States have to undergo screenings from eight government agencies and five security databases and pass six background checks in addition to their three interviews.
“My life changed when I got in Chicago,” Samad reflected. There were no Rohingya case workers at the time, but he had a pathway to citizenship for the first time and a chance to safely raise his voice against the persecution in Burma. He has become a leader in the community today.
The editor knows Samad through World Refugee Day Chicago, where she currently serves as Marketing Chair.
“Everything’s good here but…rent is so expensive,” Samad shared. The cost of living in the city is an issue that particularly affects minoritized groups, newly arrived refugees included.
While resettlement agencies support the community, particularly with social services, their capacity depends on government funding. RCC and RYA depend on donations. They are run by refugees who volunteer to support their community. Samad noted that as the community continues to grow, funding will continue to be a need.
A final area of inequity facing the Rohingya community pertains to mental health. “We must talk about this because refugees [have] suffered a lot,” Samad said.
Nightmares are not uncommon, and the effects of trauma may manifest in social interactions as well, including being easily agitated or angered, according to Samad. While some resources are available, trauma-focused therapy — and increased understanding from others who have not experienced that same trauma themselves — remains a need for Rohingya refugees as they seek to live full, healthy lives in their new home.
“Please raise your voice for our Rohingya. Still genocide is going on. Send a message to your Senator,” Samad urged. “How do you let genocide happen in the 21st century? How are you still silent? When we’re silent, we commit a crime.”
Justice for Rohingya abroad is crucial even as the United States as a whole and the city of Chicago work to welcome Rohingya refugees.
As World Refugee Day Chicago declares, “We are one human family.”