A young volunteer reflects on the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of host countries.
Deven Carse with Milana Carse
I live outside of Chicago, one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the United States. The Chicago area has a history of accepting immigrants from around the world and today hosts some of the United States’ largest populations of ethnic Central and Eastern Europeans and South Asians. Adding to this diversity, recently Chicago has become home to a sizable community of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma). While the vast majority of displaced Rohingya live in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, an October 2017 New York Times article by Ali Lapetina, “The Rohingya Who Made It to Chicago,” reported that in the previous decade 400 Rohingya families had settled in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.
Refugees may encounter difficulties settling into a new country due to many economic and logistic reasons, but linguistic and cultural differences also play a huge part as they can create or perpetuate tensions and misunderstandings, enforcing or reinforcing social and political barriers between refugees and their hosts. Rohingya refugees face specific challenges because their language is unrelated to other immigrant languages in their adoptive nation, which leaves them especially isolated. Taking action to reduce this friction not only can help make the lived experience easier for both the immigrant and the host community but also responds to an ethical imperative: those who are able to support people in need should do so.
The Rohingya people originate from the Arakan region of western Myanmar, near the border with Bangladesh. While the vast majority of Myanmar’s fifty-four million people are Buddhist, the approximately one million Rohingya are largely Sunni Muslim. There has been an uneasy relationship between Buddhists and Muslims in the region for centuries, often exacerbated by migrations and changes in rulership. When Burma was a part of British India in the nineteenth century, many Hindus and Muslims from other parts of South Asia immigrated there for a variety of reasons, which led to growing sectarian tension and conflict.
After Burma gained its independence in 1948, the new rulers became increasingly intolerant of non-Buddhist populations. In 1982, they enacted the Citizenship Law, limiting Burmese citizenship to members of 135 mostly Buddhist ethnic groups. As a result, the Rohingya lost Burmese citizenship, access to education, and freedom of movement; they became “stateless.” In the following years, land owned by Rohingya was confiscated by the government and redistributed to Buddhist settlers.
The Rohingya lost Burmese citizenship, access to education, and freedom of movement; they became ‘stateless.’
Starting in 2012, strife between Rohingya and Buddhist groups resulted in riots. The military government (which in 1989 had officially changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar) encouraged and supported the Buddhists, and the national army participated in purges, attacks, and murders of thousands of Rohingya. The escalating violence culminated in 2017, causing a massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people from Myanmar. In recent years, the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population has by now fled to neighboring Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the killings as ethnic cleansing, and the United Nations says the Rohingya are among the most persecuted people in the world.
Because of the ongoing persecution by the military government, it is unsafe for Rohingya refugees to return to their home country, so the Bangladeshi government has allowed them to stay “temporarily,” meaning that these refugees lack citizenship or permanent residency in Bangladesh, too. Consequently, they are confined to the refugee camps — tent cities comprising an estimated 900,000 Rohingya refugees, just across the border with Myanmar. Like refugees in many parts of the world, the Rohingya in Bangladesh live in difficult conditions in the camps, with few employment or educational opportunities. At the same time, wherever the camps have been established, the refugees’ presence is driving wages down and prices up for locals, which fuels tensions between the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi communities.
Language is also a major barrier for the refugees. While the Rohingya language is closely related to the Chittagonian language spoken in Bangladesh, and while speakers of those languages can sometimes understand one another, there remain many opportunities for mistranslations and misunderstandings, with potentially serious consequences. For example, as Maliha Khan explains in “Chatgaya vs. Rohingya,” a September 2018 article in The Daily Star, many Rohingya children in the camps suffer from diarrhea, which can be deadly if not treated. Khan points out that the Rohingya phrase for diarrhea is gaa-laamani, but in Chittagonian the phrase means “my body is falling apart” or “my body is coming down,” which came across as unintelligible to the international aid workers in the camps.
Complicating this situation is the fact that, unlike Chittagonian, the Rohingya language has no standardized written script, although several have been created recently in efforts to preserve the language. As the Burmese government has suppressed the Rohingya language since the 1960s and has prevented the Rohingya from attending school in Myanmar, many Rohingya are de facto illiterate, having been unable to learn their own (or even any) language in written form.
Many Rohingya are de facto illiterate, having been unable to learn their own (or even any) language in written form.
Furthermore, now the Bangladeshi government does not want Rohingya refugees to integrate with local populations in Bangladesh, so it opposes the Rohingya from learning local languages in the camps, especially the national language of Bangla. Aid worker A. K. Rahim, as quoted by Christine Ro in “The Linguistic Innovation Emerging from Rohingya Refugees,” a September 2019 article in Forbes, puts it starkly, “Bangladesh’s whole national identity is based on language, actually. They revere the language, they put it on a sacred pedestal. So, who they allow to speak Bangla is kind of showing who they allow to be Bengali.” Rohingya children have resorted to learning Bangla in secret to be able to communicate with locals.
The international aid workers in the Bangladeshi camps speak several different languages, including Chittagonian, Turkish, English, and other European languages. “This crisis is one of the most linguistically challenging that I’ve ever worked in,” says Irene Scott, program director for Translators Without Borders (TWB), as cited in Maliha Khan’s article in The Daily Star. Different camps might call the same thing by different names, depending on the language spoken by the aid workers. This has led to a persistent language barrier that worsens the Rohingya’s plight. According to TWB, since the Rohingya language is mostly used by just the Rohingya themselves, there are relatively few outside the community who understand it.
A. K. Rahim, the aid worker in the Bangladeshi camps, explained the effect of these linguistic challenges on young Rohingya in Sunaina Kumar’s April 2019 article “How Rohingya Refugee Children Are Torn between Languages” in The New Humanitarian: “There are cognitive dissonance issues among the children, simply because they are being bombarded with so many different languages. . . . There is no way to foresee their academic educational future, so they don’t know which language to choose.” The complicated history of the Rohingya people and their language is now affecting how they can move forward after escaping persecution in Myanmar.
Starting in 2015, the United States began accepting thousands of Rohingya refugees a year from the camps in Bangladesh and elsewhere, about a third of whom settled in Chicago as well as Milwaukee. Like most immigrant and refugee communities around the world, the Rohingya have struggled with securing services in the United States. Some of the challenges they face include accessing social and financial support, housing, and education.
As they do in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees in the United States experience significant language barriers, even higher than those faced by most other immigrants. Despite better educational opportunities in the United States than in refugee camps or in their home country, the Rohingya are among the most challenged refugee groups when it comes to integrating into a new community, as the forced isolation in which they have been kept, in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, means that they often start with few linguistic or cultural connections to their new home. Unlike, for instance, immigrants from India or Pakistan, the U.S. Rohingya population is new and small and composed almost entirely of first-generation immigrants.
To understand how this affects the community, I interviewed Imran Mohammad Fazal Hoque, a Rohingya who left Myanmar at age sixteen. Separated from his family, he passed through several countries in Asia and Australia, enduring seven years of struggle as a refugee before immigrating to Chicago in 2018. He has written extensively about the challenges of the Rohingya diaspora in the United States. “The biggest challenge for the Rohingya people [in the US] is the language,” said Mr. Hoque. “They did not get the chance to go to school and learn [English]. Consequently, the majority of the Rohingya people in the US are struggling with English.”
Rohingya refugees in the United States experience significant language barriers, even higher than those faced by most other immigrants.
This challenge hinders the Rohingya’s integration into U.S. society, imposing serious costs and stresses on them. “Many elderlies [sic],” explained Mr. Hoque, “have been trying so hard to learn basic English so that they can pass the citizenship test, yet there are many who have been here for nine or ten years and still have not managed to get their citizenship. As a result, they are not receiving any benefits that a normal citizen receives in their old age. Many cannot work and I am afraid that they will become homeless. Because of their lack of English, many can’t obtain their driving license and they have to work in factories or other dangerous places where the pay is low.”
A further complexity in dealing with the intense trauma most Rohingya have experienced, Mr. Hoque pointed out, is that their native language lacks words to even describe concepts like “trauma,” “depression,” and “mental health” that have become a tragic part of their lives as refugees. “If I wanted to describe ‘depression’ to someone in my language, it would take me twenty sentences. There is no word for it,” he added.
Besides the language barrier, Mr. Hoque indicated that cultural differences make the transition hard as well, especially because older generations of Rohingya have been denied educational opportunities in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. “The Rohingya community is very new to Western society. Most of the parents don’t really understand the value of [formal] education, or they don’t have enough money to support it for their children.”
These linguistic and cultural challenges threaten several generations of Rohingya in the United States with social isolation and persistent poverty. “[Rohingya] parents,” commented Mr. Hoque, “are very religious and want their children to hold on to Rohingya culture, tradition, and religion. I feel that the Rohingya teens have been struggling psychologically and find it difficult to gain a sense of belonging in their new home.”
I asked Mr. Hoque what he thought others in Chicago could do to support these beleaguered people living in their city. “I would like to ask the community to get involved with the Rohingya Culture Center Chicago and support their work,” said Mr. Hoque. “They have done extraordinary work and continue to do so, but they don’t have the support to market their work like other big organizations. If people get in touch with the center, they will see the work that the center is doing, and there is so much to do.”
I feel that the world has an ethical responsibility to support the Rohingya people; as returning to Myanmar is not a near-term possibility, host countries must be willing to be supportive and welcoming. The Rohingya refugee population worldwide faces major challenges and cultural as well as linguistic barriers. Their language is a sacred part of their culture and crucial to their ability to maintain their identity even in a new home while learning to function in a novel context.
The world has an ethical responsibility to support the Rohingya people; as returning to Myanmar is not a near-term possibility, host countries must be willing to be supportive and welcoming.
On my part, I have chosen to fulfill my ethical responsibility by helping Rohingya refugees bridge the language and culture gap — a key step for them to achieve the security and safety they deserve and to begin to heal from the trauma they have endured. This is why I spend my free time tutoring Rohingya children, helping them learn English and basic math, so they can function and thrive in the school system and in everyday life in the United States.
At the same time, I believe that the Rohingya should not be required (or even encouraged) to draw away from their own culture, which has sustained their identity and given them resilience as they went through incredible adversity and persecution in their home nation. Making sure the Rohingya can adjust to life in their new home with minimal disruption to their individual and collective well-being, while maintaining their language and cultural traditions, will benefit not only them but the United States as well. Comfortable in both worlds, the Rohingya should be welcomed as a precious element in the rich tapestry of diversity that makes a nation strong.
Deven Carse has been studying ancient languages including Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and Latin for several years. He is passionate about rescuing endangered languages and preserving cultures and ancient texts. He enjoys working with the Rohingya immigrant community near his home.
Milana Carse is a student of history and an advocate for human rights. She enjoys research and writing. In her spare time, she volunteers and sings in an a cappella group.