August 30, 2021


Mohammad Faisal, a 27-year-old Rohingya from Sobaran, Rakhine State, Myanmar (called Burma until 1989), now lives in Chicago, where he greets people with his devilish humor.

The persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar resulted in many refugees settling in Chicago. One of the largest Rohingya refugee communities is at home in Chicago, where around 2,000 Rohingya are trying to build a sense of community on the north side of the city.

“I can’t talk properly and the reason could be that I had no one to teach me how to understand different situations, ”said Faisal, while we were sitting securely on a Saturday morning in a Pakistani restaurant and enjoying sweet milk tea.

Behind his innocent face there are many traumatic stories. Faisal’s mother died when he was only five years old. His young life was difficult as he grew up without her love. As the youngest of eight children, Faisal felt the void left by his mother’s death and spent time doing household chores and looking after his frail, older father until he died when Faisal was 10 years old.

The Rohingya have suffered significantly from decades of systemic torture by the Myanmar military because of their ethnicity and religion. Rohingya became illegal immigrants in their own mother country when the 1982 Citizenship Act stripped them of their citizenship. They have been made stateless and denied freedom of movement, access to social services and education. There is no legal framework to protect the Rohingya, which is why they have been subjected to violence, land seizure, rape, torture and forced labor on a large scale for decades.

Faisal was cared for by two unmarried sisters who stayed at home with other siblings had to provide for their own families. Later he had to move between his brothers’ houses, where he worked their fields and rice fields and grew vegetables.

“Life has never given me the opportunity to complain about anything. I wish I could say no to something for once in my life and get what I want like my friends. ”

After arguments with Nasaka, the border security agency, which became extremely unbearable, a teenager Faisal feared for his safety. “The officials called me [a derogatory term for Rohingya Muslims],” said Faisal. “It was like they kept stabbing my chest.”

He didn’t work in the military bases and knew that prison meant, so Faisal fled Myanmar in 2012 at the age of 20. He fled on foot and by sea.

Faisal described his many boat trips in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia: “There was no time to think, choose or decide. Things happened and I had to accept them. I entrusted my life entirely to a piece of wood to end my statelessness. The darkness at night and the waves killed me every night and all I asked my God to do in daylight was to see a bank. ”

Finally, a small fishing boat was arranged in Indonesia so that Faisal could travel to Australia where he was told he could have a bright future. The boat was on the verge of sinking when it was found by the Australian Navy and the almost 200 passengers were transferred to Christmas Island on September 14, 2013 offshore prison camp on the island of Manus, Papua New Guinea or the island of Nauru.

Faisal was held on Manus Island for 5 years. “I forgot who I was because my boat number – EMP 152 – became my name,” he said. “I felt once again that my life would experience a different kind of struggle and that I would be caged like in my country. I escaped persecution from Myanmar, but Australia’s excruciating offshore prison on Manus completely crushed me, “said Faisal.

Faisal was transferred to the United States in June 2018 through the barter agreement between Australia and the Obama administration and found his new home in Chicago. “I feel like a person, my life has a purpose and I can go out whenever I want without being afraid,” he told me. “I know that I am not being followed by the police and for the first time in my life I can proudly say that I am a Rohingya from Myanmar.”

The US has a permanent solution to its statelessness, but also overwhelming challenges brought with their different culture, legal system, tradition and language. “I felt like a ghost when people spoke to me in English and I didn’t understand anything,” he said.

The fact that the Rohingya language is not written raises several problems. Faisal does not have a supportive language to learn English – this limits employment choices and hinders his advancement in the US. “I still panic when I get a letter in the mailbox because I can barely understand it,” said Faisal.

The requirement to start my own business within three months of arrival meant that Faisal found a job in a glassworks. He next worked at night as a cleaner at O’Hare International Airport and took a hotel hospitality course after just three hours of sleep. He was hired by the Peninsula, a five-star hotel in Chicago. Like hundreds of other refugees, Faisal never had the opportunity to process and heal the trauma he had suffered.

It was a nightmare when Faisal later lost his job because of Covid because he did not have the language skills to claim unemployment benefits apply, especially virtually. To add to his worries, he said, “I had constant calls from home asking for help. Their situation does not allow them to understand the past and current trauma that I am experiencing, ”he said.

For many young refugees, life is very simple: going to the factories to work and coming home to sleep, a cycle that few break. Faisal hopes: “I wish I had a day to think and breathe and have the opportunity to take extensive English lessons, play a game, or understand the society and system I live in.”

Faisal caught up take a deep breath and said, “To gain the title of good man in the community means that I must hold on to my culture, tradition and belief system. There is no discussion of love, feelings, emotions and sex before marriage. ”

He loves meeting people and longs for human connections. His community is his only consolation, but many of them suffer from their lack of English socially. The population generally forgets that young Rohingya men like Faisal need emotional support.

“I want to have someone to love and a family, but there is a shortage of Rohingya brides. The few who grew up here want to marry a man who was born in Malaysia or who grows up in the United States, ”said Faisal. There is a tendency among young Rohingya girls to believe that the men who were born in Rakhine State would not understand them. Also, Rohingya men cannot save at least $ 20,000 from their poorly paid jobs as a dowry to marry a Rohingya girl.

For emotional support, hundreds of young men turn to Rohingya girls in camps in Bangladesh or any other part of the world where they remain stateless. “I’m not stateless, but statelessness will haunt me through my family, relatives, and others,” said Faisal.

To understand Faisal’s sense of loneliness and resilience, put the trauma aside to move on and the family to grow At home, I followed him to his current job.

Despite the massive trauma he has experienced and the ups and downs of life, Faisal is proud and blessed to have earned his commercial driver’s license. He didn’t think he could ever read, answer, or pass the exams on the material he emailed about the CDL course. He said, “I was looked after by a Rohingya friend of mine and I would not be where I am today without his help. I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like him. ”

As a truck driver between states, Faisal says,“ It’s scary to be out for weeks. ”He misses praying in the mosque, and it’s a lot difficult to find halal food. He wishes he had a Rohingya truck driver friend to talk to.

Faisal told me, “The scary part of my job is that if something happens, no one is going to look for me, because I am have no family here. ”

“ I think my God will forgive me for not being able to practice my daily prayers as my job is to provide essential goods for people’s homes. It’s something I can do for the country that has given me a new life, ”he said. “My days make sense. I will continue to work hard and be a proud citizen of my new country, “he said.

Faisal wept when he concluded,” It’s easy to break a piece of glass, but it can never be put back the way it was it was before. “