The journey from refugee to registered voter isn’t always an easy one. But this past October, more than a dozen Rohingya-Americans completed it when they cast their ballots for the first time in the 2020 U.S. general election.
Those Rohingya refugees took a van to vote at the Warren Park Field House, located in West Rogers Park Oct. 20.
“Most of our community members voted for the first time in their lives,” said first-time voter Abdul Jabbar Amanullah. “This was a very special day for us that we are voting in the general Election Day, especially in the United States.”
The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority group from the southeastern Asian country Myanmar — formerly known as Burma.
The group has faced religious persecution over the last 60 years from Myanmar’s military, according to the U.N. In 2017, the U.N. human rights chief said Myanmar was carrying out a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya following a military crackdown on Rohingya populations.
Amanullah is a case worker at the Rohingya Community Center (RCC) in Rogers Park and helped organize the voting event. He said he chose to do this because he wanted to help other Rohingya people vote and make sure their ballot was cast.
The RCC was established in 2016 by Nasir Zhakire, a Rohingya-American, in order to help other Rohingya refugees transition to life in Chicago. It’s estimated there are only 12,000 Rohingya living in the U.S., which only makes up a sliver of the global Rohingya population — estimated to be 3.5 million, according to the Council for Human Rights. It’s currently estimated that 600,000 Rohingya are still living in Myanmar, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
Myanmar held its own presidential election on Nov. 8, but Amanullah said if he was still in the country he said he wouldn’t have been able to participate in it. In 1982, Myanmar passed a law that stripped citizenship and voting rights from the Rohingya. Because of Myanmar’s ban on Rohingya voters, Amanullah said casting his vote in the U.S. for the first time felt “very special.”
Amanullah was pleased with the presidential election results and said he still feels very excited he was able to vote in this election.
“I was surprised and very happy and excited that our Democratic Party won, I mean that it was supported by the biggest majority in the history of the U.S.,” Amanullah said. “We have big hope in the upcoming president to take immediate action and the issue of the Rohingya seriously.”
The issues and problems Amanullah wants the next administration to focus on, such as increasing resources and attention around refugees, are echoed by others in Chicago’s refugee community, including Suzanne Akrhas Sahloul, the founder of the Syrian Community Network. This organization is another refugee support organization located on the North Side of Chicago and focuses on helping refugees from Syria, according to Sahloul.
When the presidential race was called for President-elect Joe Biden Nov. 7, there was a “sigh of relief” within the refugee community, Sahloul said. A Biden victory likely means the U.S. will raise its limit on refugee admissions and allow refugees separated from family due to President Donald Trump’s record-low admissions limit to reunite, Sahloul said.
The U.S. has set limits on refugee admissions for each year since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed. Biden announced his refugee plan will drastically increase the entry limits in 2021 — from Trump’s 15,000 limit to 125,000 refugees, according to Biden’s website.
Most of the Rohingya in Chicago live in Rogers Park, according to Amanullah. He also estimates 500 Rohingya families live in the city and the RCC provides services to roughly 400 of them.
For a refugee to become a citizen, they must live in the U.S. for more than five years with a green card and pass a test on the basics of reading, writing and speaking English. The test also asks refugees questions on fundamental topics of U.S. history and government, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Both Amanullah and Sahloul said those refugees who gain citizenship through the help of their organizations become engaged voters. For some Rohingya voters, policy rather than political party drove them to the polls, specifically concerns about how the next administration will handle refugee placement and the government of Myanmar, Amanullah said.
“We really need international attention to solve these problems,” Amanullah said. “Everywhere my people are suffering. Just a request to the community to take immediate action on the Burmese government and for people suffering in the refugee camps to help those people.”