Myanmar’s genocide is foreign, yet all too familiar

CHICAGO—Prior to visiting the Rohingya Cultural Center, I couldn’t tell you what the difference was between Burma and Myanmar. I knew they were two names for the same place, but I was admittedly confused about the details of the problems afflicting that distant country.

For many people living in the United States, Myanmar might seem like a vaguely troubled place in a faraway land—another hotspot in a world full of problems. But for the folks at the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago, those problems have forever defined their lives.

I visited the Cultural Center this week on assignment for The Feed to learn more about the work they’re doing to help refugees resettle in Chicago. The stories I heard there exposed me to a world of underreported suffering, violence, displacement, and resilience—tales that I, as a Syrian, am all too familiar with.

The world’s most silent genocide is taking place in the Rohingya region of Myanmar, which prior to 1989 was called Burma. The military junta and Buddhist mobs of extremists are killing, raping, and murdering Rohingya Muslims. It all started in 2012 when the military decided to isolate Rohingya Muslims by forcibly relocating them in refugee camps within the country. By separating Muslims from the rest of the citizens, they became easier targets for the ethnic cleansing that is now underway.

A.J., a Chicago-based Rohingya translator who volunteers at the center, told me he was forced to flee the country and walk through the jungle to neighboring Bangladesh, with only his grandfather’s identification card as proof that he’s Rohingya. Myanmar’s military propaganda attempts to confuse the crisis by claiming that the Rohingya people are “illegal immigrants” from neighboring countries. So the burden of proof falls on refugees like A.J. to carry documentation showing that they are indeed natives of Myanmar.

It broke my heart to hear stories of survival as refugees fled with their entire families as the military and Buddhist mobs torched their homes and villages. It’s even more horrifying to know that the raids continue. Even now, as you read this, Rohingyas are crossing a flooded river and trekking through the jungle to escape their homes and find refuge in neighboring countries.

A young refugee at the Rohingya Cultural Center

A young refugee at the Rohingya Cultural Center

Bangladesh responded to the exodus by closing its borders, forcing Rohingyas to live in the jungle along the border. They have nowhere to go, trapped between two countries that don’t want them.

Spending time with Rohingya refugee children at the center this week reminded me how much I still have to learn about the struggles and plight of different peoples around the world. My focus has always been the Syrian refugee crisis, but if anything, the plight of my people should make me more empathetic and curious about the similar struggles of others. But I have a lot to learn still.

I’m a journalist and an advocate for human rights who speaks up on behalf of children all the time. But part of speaking up means listening to the struggles of others, too.