Refugees Find Resources in Rogers Park

Andrew DeSantis | The PHOENIXThe Rohingya Culture Center of Chicago serves more than 400 families of the Muslim minority group who've fled persecution in nations such as Myanmar.

Its facade is plastered with posters of children, and a small interior vestibule is piled high with empty shoes and jackets. At first glance, the center facing the South Asian corridor of Devon Avenue looks like the front of a preschool.

But the foyer’s discarded sneakers come from the Muslim custom of removing shoes before entering a building for cleanliness, and on closer inspection a sign near the door reads “Demand the U.N. Send Peacekeepers Immediately to Save the Rohingya.”

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Western state of Rakhine in Myanmar — also known as Burma. And the building, the Rohingya Culture Center of Chicago (RCC) at 2470 W. Devon Ave., is a local establishment dedicated to uplifting the little-known group of refugees living in Rogers Park.

Established in April 2016, the RCC aids the Rohingya in adjusting to life in the United States, providing social services, English classes and other support systems — while still upholding the Rohingya people’s culture. The center also helps with job applications and resumes.

More than 400 families who’ve fled from their home country are served by the center, according to Laura Toffenetti, assistant to the RCC’s director, Nasir Bin Zakaria.

Toffenetti, 65, is a retired school teacher who devotes an average of 30 hours per week, sometimes more, to the RCC. She assists managing the English as a Second Language Program for adults, the after-school tutoring program for children, media outreach, paperwork and miscellaneous tasks.

“All teachers take on the responsibility of their students’ future — the [RCC] is [Toffenetti’s] student,” Zakaria said.

New arrivals in Rogers Park are helped through resettlement agencies for three to six months and use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. A staff member at the RCC helps people understand the medicines prescribed to them by doctors and how to take them.

Burma has long been the stage of savage attacks by Buddhist extremist government militants and affiliated groups on Rohingya civilians, but that violence escalated in August with military crackdowns. Atrocities have included gang rapes, executions, beheadings of children and burnings of entire villages, triggering a mass exodus of Rohingya civilians from Burma, according to an October New York Times report.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights deemed the conflict a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” in September.

Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi signed a treaty Nov. 21 that would allow Rohingya to return to Burma, but it’s unclear whether the refugees who’ve fled to neighboring Bangladesh, the United States or other countries will be able to return to their original villages — if the villages weren’t destroyed.

“The Rohingyas’ lives centered around their villages and their roles within that village,” Toffenetti said. “[That] has been shattered. [The RCC] is trying to be the center of the village here in Chicago.”

The Rohingya have repeatedly been called the most persecuted minority group in the world. The Burmese government stripped the Rohingya people of their citizenship in a 1982 law which excluded non-indigenous races who settled there after 1824, according to the Burma Campaign, which monitors human rights violations of the Rohingya.

The word “Rohingya” was banned from Burma’s public discourse in 2016 as the government attempts to deny their existence, according to BBC News.

Alexis Enright, an environmental science major at Loyola, had never heard of the Rohingya, nor of the violence they faced in Burma, until she started volunteering at the center twice a week.

“The issue seems so far away, but it’s not,” Enright said.

Loyola Refugee Outreach is a student-run extracurricular that pairs volunteering Loyola students with various refugee populations in the community and helps refugees adjust to life in America — the organization sends a total of seven volunteers to the RCC on different nights Monday through Friday.

But Enright, who heard about the center from a classmate in her environmental justice class, started going on her own.

“The most challenging part [of volunteering] is getting the kids to focus with all the distractions going on around them at the center,” Enright said.

Plans are in the works to section off quieter study areas for students who need extra attention, according to Toffenetti.

Most of the families served by the RCC have school-aged children, Toffenetti said. Though the younger children are able to pick up English quickly, older children who are new to school struggle with their coursework.

Most of the refugees only speak Rohingya — an unwritten language — or Burmese. With education denied to them in Burma, many of the adult Rohingyas are illiterate, Toffenetti said — which makes it hard working with caseworkers without translators.

The RCC’s tutoring program works on a volunteer basis and is essential, due to the number of children in need of help and their parents’ inability to read or write.

Inside the RCC during tutoring hours, children ranging from toddlers to high schoolers congregate in the center’s carpeted, bright main room. The younger children play with toys or navigate desktop computers and older students work at tables with tutors.

The RCC, while primarily a resource, also strives to uphold Rohingya culture, Toffenetti said.

The center’s daily after-school homework help for children starts with a chunk of time devoted to Quran study for children ages 5 to 12.

The RCC also holds dinners at the center, where the community comes together to cook traditional meals — one of the few things they didn’t have to leave behind in Burma.

What they did leave behind were entire communities and networks of friends and family.

According to Toffenetti, the continuous outpouring of pictures, videos and pleas for help from the Rohingya refugees’ loved ones and fellow Rohingya people still trapped in Burma, Bangladesh refugee camps and other countries merely add to the stress of navigating their new lives in Chicago.

The RCC has held five protests in Chicago since 2016 and has hosted both Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky to raise awareness for the Burmese Rohingya still in need of aid. The RCC is currently raising money for food and medicine to send toward Rohingya displaced in Bangladesh or trapped in Burma.

The RCC is looking for donations of winter coats and blankets as winter approaches in Chicago; November temperatures in Burma average around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite the various adjustments to American culture, Toffenetti said it’s the first time the Rohingya refugees have the ability to put down roots with no one forcing them to move.

“They can be with people who have shared experiences and worries, who speak the same language and pray together,” Toffenetti said. “That is healing for them.”

The Rohingya Culture Center is currently accepting volunteer tutors and donations of canned foods, provisions and coats.

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