Blog post by Deven Carse, a student in the Chicago area.*
Over the years, as our family has gone to Devon Street in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago to shop for Indian groceries and novelties, we have seen the landscape evolve. Devon Street is famous as a diverse and colorful neighborhood with many cultures and religions present. Over the last decade, in addition to its prominent Indian and Pakistani populations, it has also become one of the largest concentrations of Rohingya refugees in the United States.
Currently, the Rohingya refugees are mostly in camps in Bangladesh, however as Rohingyas have been slowly coming into the United States, over 400 families have settled in Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side. Nearly 2,000 Rohingya people now live in Chicago, out of 12,000 nationwide, making Rogers Park perhaps the largest collection of Rohingya in the U.S. This article will discuss how the Rohingya’s complicated history and their native language contribute to the difficulties of integrating them with their new home.
Brief History of the Rohingya
The Rohingya people originate from the Arakan region of western Myanmar (formerly Burma), near the border with Bangladesh. While the vast majority of Myanmar’s 54 million people are Buddhist, the approximately 1 million Rohingya are largely Sunni Muslim.
There has been an uneasy relationship between Buddhists and Muslims in the region for centuries, often exacerbated by migrations and changes in rulership. In the 19th Century, the ruling British regime imported Hindu and Muslim Indians as imperial police and civil servants. As more non-Buddhist Indians came into the country, conflict and tension rose.
After Burmese independence in 1948, the government that ruled Myanmar was intolerant of non-Buddhist populations. In 1982, it enacted the Citizenship Law, limiting Burmese citizenship to members of 135 mostly-Buddhist ethnic groups. As a result, the Rohnigya lost Burmese citizenship, access to education, and freedom of movement; they became “stateless”. In the following years, land owned by Rohingya was confiscated by the government and re-distributed to Buddhist settlers.
Starting in 2012, unrest between Rohingya and Buddhist groups resulted in a number of violent riots, with Burmese government encouragement and support for the Buddhists. To escape escalating violence, the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia in the past 10 years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the killings as ethnic cleansing, and the United Nations says the Rohingya are among the most persecuted people in the world.
Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh
Because of ongoing military persecution, it is unsafe for the Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar, so the Bangladeshi government has allowed them to stay “temporarily”, meaning these refugees lack citizenship or permanent residency in any country. As a result, they are confined to the refugee camps, tent cities comprising an estimated 900,000 Rohingya refugees, just across the border with Myanmar. Like refugees in many parts of the world, the Rohingya in Bangladesh live in difficult conditions in the camps, with few employment or educational opportunities.
There are tensions between the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi communities where the camps have been established. For example, the presence of the refugees is driving down wages and driving up prices for locals, creating tensions between the refugees and their hosts. However, language and its history are also a big factor constraining the Rohingya. While the Rohingya language is closely related to the Chittagonian language spoken in Bangladesh, and while speakers of those languages can sometimes understand each other, there are many opportunities for mistranslations and misunderstandings. Complicating this is that, unlike Chittagonian, the written script of the Rohingya language has been suppressed for so long that it is almost unknown to even Rohingya themselves. Therefore, many Rohingya are illiterate, having been unable to attend schools in Myanmar or use their own language in written form.
Adding to this, the Bangladeshi government does not want Rohingya refugees to integrate with local populations in Bangladesh, so it opposes the Rohingya learning local languages in the camps, especially the national language of Bangla. As one aid worker said: “Bangladesh’s whole national identity is based on language actually. They revere the language, they put it on a really sacred pedestal. So who they allow to speak Bangla is kind of showing who they allow to be Bengali.” Rohingya children have resorted to learning Bangla in secret in order to be able to communicate with locals.
Because of these factors, a myriad of languages are used by the international aid workers in the Bangladeshi camps, including Chittagonian, Turkish, English, and other European languages. “This crisis is one of the most linguistically challenging that I’ve ever worked in,” says Irene Scott, programme director for Translators without Borders (TWB). Different camps might call the same thing by different names, depending on the language spoken by the aid workers. This has led to a persistent language barrier that worsens the Rohingyas’ plight. Since the Rohingya language is mostly used by just the Rohingya themselves, there are relatively few outside the community who understand it.
It is important to understand how language affects the ability to assimilate, as well as social emotional concepts including the stigma associated with knowing or not knowing certain languages because of the nature of the Rohingya refugee response as well as the pressure from the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments. The refugees here carry that stress and fear of speaking the “wrong” language or not speaking the “correct” language.
A sociolinguistic researcher in the Bangladeshi camps explained the effect of these linguistic challenges on young Rohingya. “There are cognitive dissonance issues among the children, simply because they are being bombarded with so many different languages that are not standardized in any way. There is no way to foresee their academic educational future, so they don’t know which language to choose.” The complicated history of the Rohingya people–and their language–is now affecting how they can move forward after escaping persecution in Myanmar.
Rohingya children are not the only members of the community who have fallen behind educationally, due to oppression in Myanmar, restricted opportunities in refugee camps. Rohingya women are also limited and abused, not just by their government or host countries, but also by Rohingya men. Suppression of women’s rights has long occurred in conservative religious cultures such as that of the Rohingya, resulting in an even larger educational and skills deficit among the women than the men. “It is different in the U.S. than it was in Burma,” says one Rohingya woman I interviewed. “In the U.S., most men work and women stay home with the kids. But that is not always the case. Some women work, sometimes both husband and wife work, sometimes men stay home while the wife works. It really depends on the family. In Burma, men would work and women would stay home for the most part.” This has further isolated Rohingya women refugees as they struggle to find a way to fit into their host communities.
Challenges for Rohingya in Chicago
Beginning in 2015, the U.S. began accepting thousands of Rohingya refugees each year from the camps, about a third of whom settled in Milwaukee and Chicago. Like most immigrant and refugee communities across the world, the Rohingya have struggled with assimilating and finding services in the United States. Some of the challenges include accessing social and financial support, housing, and education.
However, Rohingya refugees in the U.S. face even higher language barriers than most other immigrants. This is a consequence of the limited use and unwritten nature of the Rohingya language; pressures limiting the languages they were permitted to learn; and the variety of languages used in refugee camps. Despite better educational opportunities in the U.S. than in their home country, the Rohingya are among the most challenged refugee groups when it comes to assimilating into a new community–they often start with few linguistic or cultural connections to their new home.
To understand how this affects the community, I interviewed Mr. Imran Mohammad, a Rohingya who left Myanmar at age 16. Separated from his family, he passed as a refugee through several countries in Asia and Australia, before immigrating to Chicago in 2018. “The biggest challenge for the Rohingya people [in the U.S.] is the language,” said Mr. Mohammad.
Unlike immigrants from India or Pakistan, Rohingya immigrants often cannot practice English at home or in their community, as the U.S. Rohingya population is new and small, and composed almost entirely of first-generation immigrants. “They did not get the chance to go to school to learn, consequently, the majority of the Rohingya people in the U.S are struggling with English,” said Mr. Mohammad. “[The] Rohingya language is not written so it is extremely difficult for them to learn English because they don’t have any [support], like other refugees who can translate English into their language and can improve their English quickly.”
The inability to learn English and integrate with society can impose serious costs on Rohingya immigrants. “Many elderlies have been trying so hard to learn basic English so that they can pass the citizenship class, but there are many who have been here for 9 or 10 years and they still have not managed to get their citizenship. As a result, they are not receiving any benefits that a normal citizen receives in their old age. Many cannot work and I am afraid that they will become homeless. Because of their lack of English, many can’t obtain their driving license and they have to work in factories or other dangerous places where the pay is low.”
Even limitations in the Rohingya language itself make it hard to deal with transition to a new community. Mr. Mohammad said that dealing with the trauma most Rohingya have experienced is complicated by the fact their native language lacks words to even describe concepts like “trauma”, “depression”, and “mental health”. “If I wanted to describe ‘depression’ to someone in my language, it would take me 20 sentences. There is no word for it,” said Mr. Mohammad.
In addition to language barriers, Mr. Mohammad indicated cultural differences make the transition hard, as well. “The Rohingya community is very new to the western society. Most of the parents don’t really understand the value of education or they don’t have enough money to support their children’s education.”
“Here we can go to school just like all kids. In Burma, no Rohingya were allowed in school,” says one Rohingya woman in Chicago whom I interviewed. “[In Chicago, there] are many Rohingya girls and women in college and higher education, but we only have one Rohingya college graduate in Chicago so far.” Another Chicago Rohingya woman told me there are high drop-out rates among the community, because people do not have formal educational backgrounds, and neither do their parents. “Many community members live on the poverty line so there is an incentive to dropout of school to go to work and help the family. Some high school girls drop out and get married young.”
These linguistic and cultural challenges threaten several generations of Rohingya in the U.S. with social isolation and persistent poverty. Mr. Mohammad himself endured seven years of struggle as a refugee before immigrating to the U.S., only to find that many of his people’s problems were universal. “[Rohingya] parents are very religious and want their children to hold on to Rohingya culture, tradition, and religion. I feel that the Rohingya teens have been struggling psychologically and find it difficult to gain a sense of belonging in their new home.”
Learnings & Conclusion
Mr. Mohammad has written extensively about the challenges of the Rohingya diaspora in the U.S. I asked Mr. Mohammad what he thought others in Chicago could do to support these challenged people living in their city. “I would like to ask the community to get involved with the Rohingya Culture Center Chicago and support their work,” said Mr. Mohammad. “They have done extraordinary work and continue to do so but they don’t have the support to market their work like other big organizations. If people get in touch with the center, they will see the work that the center is doing and there is so much to do.”
“Just to give you an example, when Covid hit, every organization closed its door and provided its services virtually. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the Rohingya people. They lost their jobs and didn’t know how to apply for their unemployment benefits because they can’t speak or read English. The Rohingya Culture Center provided its services to the Rohingya community and other vulnerable refugees from other communities every day in person. They didn’t close their door for a single day during Covid.”
The Rohingya refugee population worldwide has many challenges and cultural barriers, all of which are amplified by the unique features of the Rohingya language. Their language, however, is a sacred part of their culture, and important to maintain their identity even in their new home. Since Chicago has such a sizeable and growing Rohingya population, and because informal learning of English may be difficult, one of the best strategies to support this new group is providing formal English education and translation services. Doing this will better allow them to assimilate into U.S. culture, while still maintaining Rohingya roots, which we know take heavy influence through their language.
* Deven is of mixed European and Indian heritage, and is fascinated by socio-linguistics, particularly South East Asian and classical languages. He and his family have been involved in local community service in their hometown near Chicago since he was very young.
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