Giulianna Larson is an unpaid administrative intern at Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America.
For decades, the ethnic-religious minority the Rohingya have been displaced, raped and murdered by the Burmese military. It is time for the world to wake up and advocate for Rohingya rights.
Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America (FORA), a program available to work-study and non-work study students at Loyola, is an education empowerment center aiming to ensure refugee families have access to educational resources. These resources allow refugee children to succeed in school and prepare them for higher education.
I have been a part of FORA since September 2021 and have witnessed how the Rohingya have been both valued and dismissed by the global community. FORA aims to ensure refugee families have access to educational resources in order to become economically successful members of society. These resources give ethnic-minority groups such as the Rohingya a voice to speak out for their community.
Rohingya advocate Mohammad S. Anwar said in a speech at FORA the Rohingya genocide began in 1942 when tensions arose between the Rohingya and the colonial Burmese government.
Furthermore, in 1982, Burma enforced a new citizenship law that denied the Rohingya documentation and forced them to leave the state of Rakhine.
U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, recognized members of the Burmese military have committed acts of genocide as well as crimes against humanity towards the Rohingya on March 21.
Bart Moy, community engagement manager and representative for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, spoke at FORA in support of the Rohingya activists.
“The recognition of the Rohingya genocide is an important moment,” Moy said. “Acknowledging history and truth will allow us to do better for the next generation to come.”
FORA welcomed former Celtics player Enes Kanter Freedom and Women and Refugee Rights Coordinator Sharifah Shakirah to speak to the West Ridge community about the Rohingya genocide in Myranmar, historically known as Burma until 1989.
In a speech to the West Ridge community, Freedom said his own refugee experience sparked his empathy for the Rohingya and intensified his desire to speak out against Rohingya persecution.
Freedom, now 30 years old, left Turkey 11 years ago in opposition to the Turkish government. As a result, the government cut communication between Freedom and his family and he was treated as a wanted criminal in the country.
“It doesn’t matter what your skin color is, what your religion is, what your culture is or where you’re from,” Freedom said. “The most important thing in life is to leave your differences on the table and try to find what we have in common because we only have one world to live in. We need to make this world better together.”
In Myanmar, 87.9% of its citizens identify as Buddhist, according to Cultural Atlas. The divide between Buddhists and Rohingya-Muslims has stoked persecution and resulted in inhumane acts including ethnic cleansing carried out by the military.
“There are about 4 million individuals who identify as Rohingya, but there are only about 700,000 left in Burma,” Anwar said. “The government began taking away our citizenship and documentation.”
Shakirah, the founder and director of Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN), said 2,000 cases of mass rape against Rohingya women were documented in 2017.
Hasnah Hussin, a Rohingya and women rights activist, spoke at the education center about discrimination she faced for her Rohingya-Muslim identity.
“I was arrested in Malaysia because I spoke out against Rohingya children dying in detention camps in Malaysia from improper care at the start of the pandemic,” Hussin said. “I was arrested because I did not have freedom of speech.”
Freedom talked about the importance of recognizing the crimes against the Rohingya as genocide.
“It is time for the world and its leaders to wake up and call it what it is: a genocide,” Kanter said.
As more people acknowledge the inhumane crimes the Rohingya have endured, the community will have more power over the Myanmar government. Raising awareness for the Rohingya is imperative to provide more opportunities for the religious-ethnic minority to become formally educated.
In Myanmar, the government aimed to increase illiteracy in the Rohingya community, Shakirah told The Phoenix. These efforts led the Rohingya to be denied educational services.
Aziza Mohammed Tayub, 14-year-old Rohingya activist, said education allows the Rohingya community to have a voice.
“I wish for my friends and family around the world to be able to get the opportunity to an education, like I have had, and to study and be a voice for the community,” Tayub said.
Shakirah urged the U.S to accept more Rohingya refugees so others in her community will have access to education.
“With education we are becoming the voices for us and other people,” Shakirah said. “We have the pen to write our destiny and we are asking the U.S to give us the pen and allow us to write our destiny as that pen was taken from as when we were born.”
Kathleen O’Connor, Ph.D, co-founder and educational programs director at FORA, said she admired Freedom’s humility and hopes he will be an example for others in the community.
Speaking out against the Rohingya genocide has provided Rohingya refugees with various resources such as education-empowerment centers like FORA.
According to Lauren Kearns, chief of staff at FORA, there are projected to be 74 students enrolled at FORA for their fall session.
It is time for the public to fight for Rohingya rights and advocate for resistance against the oppressive Myanmar military.