In 1991, as the Nobel Committee celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi for her “non-violent struggle for human rights,” Nasir Zakaria was abducted by the Myanmar military and forced into a labor camp in Rakhine State. While there, between enduring bouts of torture and starvation, he joined scores of other Rohingya men in repairing roads, cleaning bathrooms in barracks, and carrying military supplies into the jungle. He was 14 years old.
Starting in the late 1980s, Myanmar began increasing its military presence in Rakhine, and by August 1991, the number of soldiers in Mawdaung and Buthidaung had more than doubled. According to a UNHCR report, from 1992, the construction of camps and outposts relied largely on conscripted labor, who “worked until they were either too sick or hurt to walk any further.”
When the project ended, countless were killed by mines, in cross fire, or by the units they served. A few, including Nasir, managed to escape.
“When I think of Rakhine, I remember fear,” Nasir recounts to me. “We never knew when a mob would come and destroy our houses. We didn’t know if our children would make it back home if we sent them to school. I saw an entire generation grow up in an open air prison.”
In 1994, Nasir was one of 250,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar to escape forced labor, rape, and religious persecution. His route mirrored the path taken by the Rohingya, who escaped genocide in 2017 — a long, dangerous walk from the townships to the water, followed by a boat journey at the dead of night across the Naf river to Teknaf in Bangladesh. Back then, where the largest refugee camp in the world stands right now, there was only lush forest; and the Rohingya were as unwanted in Bangladesh as they were in Myanmar. Stories of torture at the hands of the border guard were not uncommon. Nasir knew he could not stay in Bangladesh for long.
He sent word to his family in Rakhine, family properties were sold off, and an ‘agent’ arranged for him to get to Thailand. “I know traffickers can be bad people. But in my case, traffickers saved my life,” he says.
'When I think of Rakhine, I remember fear'
In 1992, there were approximately 70,000 refugees from Myanmar in Thailand, many of them persecuted minorities from the country's borderlands. Throughout the 90s, Thai government policy toward refugees remained hostile, with Human Rights Watch documenting patterns of arbitrary arrest, detention, fines, and deportation.
“I worked in construction in Thailand for six months,” Nasir tells me, “and I saved every penny I could. We were provided lunch at work, and most days, that was the only food I had.”
When he had saved up enough, he found another ‘agent’ who guaranteed him safe passage out of Thailand. “We walked through the jungle for one day and one night, and on the second morning, as the sun rose, I arrived in Malaysia.”
The year was 1995. In Myanmar, the Rohingya had no citizenship, no voting rights, and no freedom of movement. A new series of government orders had laid out ten requirements for authorities to approve a marriage within the community. As the junta continued to consolidate power, the military was undergoing an internal process of “ethnic-homogenization” — excluding minorities in favor of majoritarian Bamar Buddhist representation. Publicly, the Tatmadaw had begun portraying itself as Myanmar’s savior, the only institution that could keep together a nation at risk of collapsing upon itself. In a bifurcated state held hostage to authoritarianism, the conditions for mass violence were deepening.
In Malaysia, Nasir was struggling to get started. “I didn’t have any documents, and I needed money. I found a construction job where they paid us pennies, but didn’t ask any questions. I was one of many Rohingya there.”
For the next five years, until he received his refugee card, Nasir spent his nights in the Malay jungle, with only a plastic sheet over his head. “We were scared of being arrested, we didn’t even speak the language,” he confesses.
Unbeknownst to Nasir, the world was changing. In a post-9/11 world, Islamophobia was being minted, manufactured, and weaponized with devastating consequences for Muslims worldwide. Quickly, the ‘war on terror’ was becoming the rallying cry of a generation. In Myanmar, the junta took notice. Political dissent by the Rohingya became indicative of something more sinister; human rights violations by the military became normalized under the banner of counter-terror efforts. The 969 Movement — launched by firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu in 2001 — began advocating for an apartheid against all Muslims, and the Rohingya in particular. In the Burmese imagination, the Rohingya emerged as Muslims uniquely susceptible to radicalization.
For Nasir, time sped up. Over the next 18 years, he slowly rebuilt his life from the ground up; renting his first apartment, becoming active within the Rohingya diaspora, and getting married in 2010. Two years later, as riots set Rakhine aflame, Nasir invited his firstborn into the world. News, like joy, reached slowly: following local altercations, at least 98 Rohingya had been killed and over 75,000 displaced. According to a Physicians for Human Rights report, Buddhist monks had delivered anti-Muslim speeches in affected towns in the days before the violence. After the attacks, DVDs containing video footage of Rohingya being burned and beaten to death had been sold in Mandalay. Soon, photos of bodies of victims ‘hogtied’ with strings and left out in the fields were circulated.
That was the year Abdus Samad fled Myanmar.
“We spent weeks at sea,” Samad tells me. “Some of us died, and their bodies were thrown into the water. When we reached Thailand, we were arrested immediately. No one asked why we had left Myanmar.”
Aided by the community in Malaysia, both men applied for third country asylum in the United States. Eighteen months later, with help from UNHCR and Refugee One, they were resettled in Chicago.
'A place to remember what it means to be a Rohingya'
The first Rohingya families reached Chicago in 2012, and by 2016, the community had grown to almost 1,500. Today, the city hosts the largest population of Rohingya in the country.
When I ask him about Chicago, Samad smiles, “It’s beautiful. Here, for the first time in my life, I opened a bank account, and I got an ID with my name on it. I felt like I had been reborn.”
Resettlement might have given the Rohingya a new lease on life, but in Chicago, the community was struggling from low literacy rates, limited English proficiency, and scarce employment opportunities. Nasir realized he needed to do something to help. Other Rohingya like Samad felt the same way, and in discussions, an idea began to take shape.
The Rohingya Cultural Center sits between two apartment buildings in Devon Avenue, a few feet away from the Croatian Cultural Center on one side, and a series of kebab shops, hookah lounges and ethnic grocery stores on the other. Every Ramadan, the center provides iftar to the nearly 1,500 families in the area; every day, case workers help community members access social security and healthcare benefits. Teachers teach English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, volunteers help members with employment opportunities.
For Nasir, the Center is the culmination of a life’s work. “We wanted a space to remember what it means to be Rohingya,” he tells me. With help from community members, and funding from the Zakat Foundation of America, the Center became a reality in 2016. As the number of Rohingya refugees grew in Chicago, it kept pace; quickly evolving into an essential support for the diaspora. When the Myanmar military unleashed its “final clearance operations” in Rakhine in 2017, the Center advocated for refugees fleeing persecution, lobbying Senators to speak out against genocide. Steadily, it expanded its offerings: providing childcare for parents, citizenship classes, translation services, and Quran education.
Two years ago, Samad started a youth program to engage the growing number of Rohingya children in the community. “The children are our future,” Samad tells me, “but for them to succeed, they need our help.”
The sports program, in particular, has been a huge hit. As news of fresh bouts of violence in Rakhine breaks each month, children between six and 18 years of age find pause in training sessions and practice matches. They play, converse in Burmese, and forget about the world for a few hours. Afterwards, they share homemade snacks.
“I want them to know the importance of working as a team,” Samad said. “What better way than sports to teach the power of community?”
That community came together in 2017, when Samad’s wedding was hosted by the Center. Almost 300 guests crowded into the small conference room, and songs from home filled the air. Everyone had left loved ones behind in Myanmar, but in Chicago, the diaspora celebrated as family.
“I met my wife at a bus stop opposite Devon Market,” Samad tells me excitedly. “Can you believe my luck?”
'I am here because I am'
Then came the pandemic. Suddenly, lockdowns shut down iftar fundraisers, ESL classes were scrapped, and youth programs were thrown into disarray. Overnight, cash flow dried up. Right now, Nasir tells me the staff is scrambling to support the community at a time of heightened need.
In April alone, the center successfully processed unemployment benefits for over 80 individuals in the community, and SNAP, medical, and other welfare benefits for another 34. But if funds don’t start coming in soon, all that might end.
For now, the staff members are doing all they can. Each weekend after football practice, Samad works overtime to translate news into Burmese for the wider community. Nasir rushes from one meeting to the next, pitching possible funders to keep the Center afloat.
For the Rohingya diaspora in Chicago, the center is a lifeline.
“When we didn’t have money, they gave us food,” Mohammad Solim, who arrived in Chicago in 2014, tells me. “When we lost our jobs, they helped us find new ones.”
In conversation, Nasir’s name comes up often. “He is like an elder brother,” Solim says, “if he could, he would sell his blood for us.”
In the larger Rohingya narrative, these stories are anomalies. Overwhelmingly, Rohingya stories start with persecution, meander through exodus and disappear somewhere between repatriation and resettlement. Like all stories, they are perforated with pain and dread, but where other stories find meaning in hope, the Rohingya are often confronted by circumstances beyond their control. In Chicago, that familiar script has been upended by a community fiercely protective of each other.
As I spoke to Nasir, a Category-five cyclone was barreling toward Cox’s Bazar, where almost one million Rohingya have been hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.
“The wind is growing stronger by the minute, phone low on charge” Aziz texted me from the camps. Not knowing what to text back, I called Nasir instead.
In Chicago, the sun is setting. These past few weeks, every time I have called Nasir with follow-up questions, he has indulged me with characteristic candor. Now, I tell him of the cyclone — how it might miss the camps this time, but also how we are only at the start of a long season of storms. He sighs. We chat a little more, making plans to meet if we are ever in the same city. Before I hang up, I ask Nasir something that has been on my mind for a while.“For you, what does it mean to be a Rohingya?”
Nasir’s voice is gentle, but firm. “It is who I am. I remind myself of that truth every time the world wants to take it away from me. I am not here despite being a Rohingya. I am here because I am.”
After the call ends, I text Solim the same question, and he replies immediately.
“Myanmar never recognized us as the Rohingya, but now, the entire world knows our name.”