The Rohingya American Council (RAC) is a newly formed organization with representatives from states around the U.S. Our main purpose is to advocate for justice and peace for Rohingya in America and around the world.
“I never thought in my entire life, I would have an opportunity to organize a team of Rohingya in D.C. to be a voice and to shine a light of hope for my people. Taking care of the group from Wednesday, May 10 to Friday, May 12, 2023 was historic for me,” said Nasir Zakaria, founder of the Rohingya Culture Center, Chicago, and a leader in the RAC.
Some of us managed to save our lives from atrocities in Myanmar. We became the genocide survivors, and we live in lands that are foreign to us. There are still many in our Rohingya community who can’t grasp the idea of human rights.
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We didn’t have the chance to speak for our basic human rights when Myanmar General Ne Win's government passed a citizenship law in 1982 that excluded Rohingya. Since then, citizenship in Myanmar is based on ethnicity.
“Not allowing Rohingya to participate in every aspect of Myanmar is a loss for our country. It missed out on our contribution, knowledge, and sacrifices. However, we will never miss the opportunity to play our part in our adopted nation to raise our voice to protect the rights of every human,” said Shaukhat Jilani, founder of Rohingya American Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and another leader in the RAC.
We Rohingya were forbidden to go to the capital city in our own country, but visiting the White House and meeting with lawmakers and officials at the State Department, Holocaust Museum, and Center for Genocide Prevention—and speaking with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), Rep. Young Kim (R-CA), Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)—made us feel as if we had regained our dignity. We can't thank Rep. Schakowsky's staff enough for the support they provided in connecting us to different departments. It was a very heart-touching moment, and we had tears in our eyes and couldn't speak from time to time. We realized how important it was for a group of Rohingya to be present in D.C.
One of the main tools utilized against Rohingya is preventing them from obtaining an education, which has resulted in the majority of our people being illiterate.
Many Rohingya don't have knowledge of politics, systemic oppression, human rights violations, and the process of democracy. We were robbed of our ability to organize and unite against the violence waged against us. The persecution of the Rohingya is well organized and was planned to extract the roots of Rohingya from the land where they belong.
“I witnessed genocide and the effects continue to live with me as I am illiterate and don’t even have the language to tell my story to the world,” said Abdul Nabi Jinah, an RAC leader based in Chicago.
We, the founding members of the Rohingya American Council, believe it is important that we establish a relationship with U.S. government officials on behalf of the Rohingya people. As Rohingya Americans, it is crucial that we be included in the process of democracy, politics, and decision-making. We deserve the right to raise our concerns about human rights violations and preserve the dignity of our people around the globe.
“We sincerely appreciate the million-dollar support that the U.S. is providing for the Rohingya, but we are worried that no progress is being made toward a long-term solution,” explained Maung Nu, co-founder and executive director of the Rohingya National League, in Los Angeles, and leader of RAC.
It is essential to have Rohingya people present in all work related to this issue since we know the urgency of the matter firsthand. We have relevant information about the political changes in Myanmar, and firsthand, up-to-date information in Rakhine State, Myanmar; Bangladesh; Malaysia; India; Saudi Arabia; and other places.
We Rohingya have suffered from systemic persecution for decades. Sadly, the genocide against our people continues in Myanmar and has not stopped at the border. A more subtle, grinding version is happening in the camps in Bangladesh as Rohingya struggle to survive.
“I am 83 years old and saw genocide in Myanmar three times in my lifetime (1942, 2012, and 2017). I can’t even walk properly, but I came to Washington, D.C., to talk with the senators, congresspersons, representatives of the State Department, the Holocaust Museum, and other officials. I am here for my people and my pain is nothing compared to one minute of their pain,” Mohamed Mia, an RAC leader from Chicago, said.
Our voices were snatched from us. We were not allowed to practice our very basic human rights in Myanmar. RAC is looking to restore our voices and have a seat at the table when the fate of our people is discussed. We can assist and collaborate with each department that is working on the issues of Rohingya and Myanmar. We believe such a collaboration will result in developing more informed decisions toward solving the Rohingya crisis. We want to work with all who work on these issues.
“I am grateful to the State Department for welcoming our team to listen to our concerns. One of the ways to respect the genocide survivors would be to add an option on the U.S. visa application which asks, 'Have you ever been involved in any way with Rohingya genocide? Yes, no?' It will send a clear message to Myanmar’s perpetrators that the world knows about the human rights violation in Myanmar against the Rohingya,” said Abdul Hamid, one of the founding RAC members and a resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
He also recommended that officials instate a Rohingya Act, similar to the Burma Act.
“We are in constant contact with Rohingya living in Burma, Bangladesh, and around the world. We would gladly share this information with anyone looking to advocate for our people. Having an office in D.C. will allow us to work more effectively, but we can’t do it without support,” Nu, an RAC member, said.
The refugee camps in Bangladesh have a million of our brothers and sisters suffering within five square miles. The conditions in these camps are horrific.
Our children’s futures are lost because of the lack of meaningful educational opportunities. There is no work for families. The food supply continues to be reduced and medical assistance is inadequate. Housing is restricted to bamboo and tarps.
Violence and illnesses run through the camps. Women and girls are raped. Our people live desperate lives without hope and there is no end in sight. The Bangladesh government turns a blind eye to the traffickers and gangs.
There are people who have lived in these camps for 30 years. The “No Exit” policy does not allow anyone to immigrate. When Canada asked to take a large number of Rohingya refugees, their request was denied.
“I go to D’Youville University in Buffalo and will become a registered nurse by the end of 2024. My education journey has been extremely tough because my father already struggles to look after the whole family of seven, and I don’t expect any financial support. I will complete my studies and there is no room for giving up, but the thing that makes me sad is I don’t see any Rohingya boys or girls in my university or other universities in Buffalo,” said RAC leader Azimah Jalil, of Buffalo, New York.
Jalil emphasized: “We want to be stable and independent. Education will get us there. Providing scholarships for Rohingya students here in the United States and bringing Rohingya students from Bangladesh and other camps on scholarships to complete their education would provide the resources to preserve the dignity of the remaining Rohingya.”
“We are losing our future generation. Our children in refugee camps are not obtaining even informal education. Few of their parents are educated because of Burma’s stance against the Rohingya. Education is crucial for our existence to be involved in the process of democracy, politics, and decision-making. It will allow us to raise our concerns about human rights violations and preserve the dignity of our people around the globe. Empowering our young generation here in the U.S. will play a vital for the future of our people,” said Amir Bashir, founder of the Rohingya Youth Association of Portland, Oregon, and an RAC leader.
The Rohingya in the U.S. also struggle. Because of our statelessness, most Rohingya are illiterate in any language. Our men learn English at their jobs, but many women are left behind. These mothers and our elders are the ones that carry our culture and raise our children. Their lack of English impacts our children’s success.
Our Rohingya language is rare and unwritten. The resettlement agencies in the U.S. do not have adequate interpreters and this language barrier affects everything: jobs, health care, access to social services, communications with our children’s schools, and more.
“The majority of Rohingya in the U.S. live on the edge of poverty. There is no middle-class Rohingya. Once the five-six months of support from resettlement agencies is over, they must fend for themselves. All suffer from first- and second-degree trauma. There is no program to help them recover from the violence they have experienced and witnessed. There are no Rohingya-speaking therapists or doctors. If ever the Rohingya, who are currently trapped in Bangladesh, arrive in the U.S., there will be an even greater need for a mental health program to deal with their trauma. Without such support, they will have little to no hope of success,” said Laura Toffenetti, senior adviser for the Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago.
Our elderly and disabled struggle to learn to speak, read, and understand English in order to pass their citizenship test. If they have never been able to work in the U.S. and do not pass this test, their Social Security benefits stop in their seventh year. There are accommodations that can be made but that is dependent on the position of each administration.
Many of our people are determined to be citizens, a right that has been denied them all their lives. Many attend classes for two years before they can accomplish this. Their refugee status in the U.S. should be a promise of safety for the rest of their lives, not just for seven years. Unfortunately, their well-being falls on already strained communities.
“I was 73 years old when I came to the U.S. and I tried so hard to learn a little bit of English and took the citizenship test three times, but I failed each time. All of my Social Security benefits stopped, and I was left with nothing. I struggled for almost a year until I passed the test the fourth time. I don’t know how many out there like me are struggling in silence,” RAC member Mohamed Mia said.
The senators, Congress members, representatives of the State Department, and the Holocaust Museum were very welcoming and accommodating. It was very effective for us to meet with the officials in person and I am sure that we will be able to build a strong partnership with them to collaborate on the Rohingya crisis.
“I don’t speak a word in English and didn’t understand anything that was discussed during the meetings. I asked my 19-year-old son ... to explain things to me … I spent three days in D.C. walking from one building to another and everything hurt so much, but I hope my presence will help people understand the slow genocide which Rohingya witnessed and still continues,” RAC leader Abdul Nabi Jinah said.
We felt that our concerns were heard, and we hope it will open many doors for us to work collaboratively with the U.S. officials along with American colleges and universities. This is just the first step in the fight for justice, peace, and accountability. Our voices will be louder as RAC continues to recruit more Rohingya representatives from around the U.S.
Rashid comments as he looks into the distance and squeezes his hands together: “I was born in Malaysia and don’t know anything about Myanmar, but being able to speak for my people felt like my life is worth living. My blood is Rohingya, and I want to be the weapon for my people with my education because our people are voiceless. Coming to D.C. with the RAC group allowed me to see things that I would not learn in my classroom. I understand the importance of standing up and fighting for justice on behalf of my Rohingya brothers and sisters from D.C., and it's powerful.”
Editor's note: The Rohingya American Council visited members of Congress in May 2023. This post was updated on July 13, 2023, to include their names.