There are some things that Nasir Zakaria can’t forget. remnants of the horror and enslavement he endured in Burma, now known as Myanmar, still haunt him. Today he walks the streets of Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood as a free man, but it wasn’t always this way.
“They bring me here. Freedom… they accept here. Safe life, my life here… so I can maybe do something for my people,” Zakaria said.
Zakaria fled his country over 23 years ago after he was kidnapped and separated from his family. Once he escaped, he went to Bangladesh, Thailand, and then Malaysia. He was only 14 years old. Much of his life since has been an uphill battle. In Malaysia, he lived as an illegal immigrant for 18 years. To this day, he has never reunited with his parents.
“I want to give my mom, my dad … I want to give hug. This is my hope, if they are alive,” he said.
Zakaria came to Chicago five years ago as a refugee, and opened the Rohingya Cultural Center last year in West Rogers Park.
“Rohingya Cultural Center is not a center,” Zakaria said. “This is our village, our home.”
Remembering where they come from isn’t hard to do. Back home in Myanmar, some Rohingya are killed, tortured, raped, and forced out of their country. Many of their homes are burned down, erasing the evidence of their struggle and grim reality. The Rohingya community has been oppressed by the government for decades. the United Nations reports that more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled.
“We cannot be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authority what they appear to be: a brutal sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority,” United Nations Ambassador Niki Haley said.
The Myanmar government says it’s fighting terrorists, but images of Rohingya bodies and loved ones burying children paint a different picture that is hard to ignore. Imam, Director of a nonprofit Sound Vision, calls this crisis Islamophobia since most Rohingya are practicing Muslims, a minority among a Buddhist nation. He believes the government is driving out opposing religions.
“We call it a genocide. And while the world took some time to call it a genocide, we’ve been saying it right from the beginning.”
Here in Chicago, DePaul Assistant Professor Anne Shaw and University of Illinois – Chicago Assistant Professor Rohan Jeremiah have secured a grant aimed at helping them understand the needs of the Rohingya community in Chicago.
“They are really an empowered and great community that I think Chicagoans should get to know,” Shaw said.
Many Rohingya struggle to adjust to American life and some cannot speak English. This, in addition to what their families are facing back home, present real barriers for them. The Rohingya Cultural Center holds classes, an after-school program and weekly meet-ups to address their needs in adjusting to American life.
“I want open my heart. Exactly this is for people, not for myself, for everyone benefit. From my heart, I am doing this thing.”
Zakaria is a free man now. And he’s using that freedom to try to bring a community together to heal. But he still has one dream left: to reunite with his mother and father in Myanmar. Until then, freedom is bittersweet.