Abdul Jabbar, 30, stood in front of Exit B at Terminal 5 in O'Hare International Airport, waiting.
"For them, it's really hard," he said, of the people who would be coming through the door in a few minutes.
He knows. He is also a Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority in Myanmar, as Burma is now known. How oppressed? Last year, the Myanmar government refused to let anyone register as "Rohingya" on the national census.
"Rohingya doesn’t exist,” said a member of the Burmese parliament, news to the untold millions — the government won't count them, remember — who live in camps, or hiding, or have fled the country because they cannot hold jobs or go to government schools, and are being attacked by Buddhist mobs, beaten or burned to death.
Something to think about next time you're whining about the War on Christmas.
"That is the main reason people are leaving," said Jabbar. "They are not allowed to legally work."
When he was 12, he would be seized on his way to school and forced to work, unpaid, pressed by local military officers into being a porter—in essence, a slave. When his uncles decided to flee, his mother urged Jabbar to join them.
"My mother said, 'Follow your uncles; save your life.'" he recalled, the start of a 15-year odyssey through Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, dealing with treacherous human traffickers and police whose only interest was to send him back.
"Nine times I was arrested in Malaysia," he said. "Each time I was deported to Thailand."
"We are most persecuted minority in the world," he said.
But not the only persecuted minority. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimates that 40,000 people a day leave their homes fleeing armed conflict—it administers to some 15 million refugees. For decades, the main source of refugees was Afghanistan, but in 2014 that became Syria.
"The crisis was going on for four years, but no one was paying attention," said Suzanne Akhras Sahloul from the Syrian Community Network of Chicago. "Many advocacy groups were talking about the refugee crisis,but no one was really listening. it was not something that would affect their life. It was another conflict in the Middle East."
For a brief time in the fall, the world's heart softened to their plight. But after the Paris attacks, unrelated though they were to Syrian refugees,, nativism surged in Europe, and in the United States. Congress leapt to block refugees from Syria. Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday went even further, demanding a complete ban to all Muslims entering the United States. As frightening as that is to any Muslim, it leaves Syrian refugees particularly stunned and confused.
"You're blaming the victim," said Sahloul, who said Syrian refugees in this country are aghast to be lumped in with the evil that drove them from their homes.
"The governor, he's really upset them," she said, before Trump's shocking declaration. "They'll say, 'We're not ISIS.' It's hurt their feelings, and offended them, greatly. [They say] 'We're good people. Look at my children.'"
Americans tend to have narrow preconceptions when it comes to the Middle East. They imagine sand, camels, poverty. With Syria, the cliche was particularly spurious.
"Syria used to be a beautiful country, good infrastructure, great houses, cafes, restaurants, excellent education," said Chandreyee Banerjee, Catholic Relief Services' regional development director for the Great Lakes Area. "Exchange students would go from the U.S. and Europe to study in Damascus. You are talking about people who are very cultured, very educated, and had a pretty good life.
In 2011, that all changed.
"Then you look at what their status is today, it's very sad," she said. "It just breaks your heart. Their life is such a dark contrast to before the war. And for them, not much of a preparation phase. They went from a life just like yours and mine to their houses being bombed, losing their family members, losing their homes. Extremely dire conditions. They leave their country and everything they hold dear as refugees."
Prior to her posting here, Banerjee was a CRS representative in Turkey. Last fall, she stood at the Macedonia border and watched thousands fleeing for their lives.
"I love history," she said. "I read a lot about World War II. Just looking at these numbers of people coming through, it made me feel: This is exactly what it must have looked like during the world war."
And just as in World War II, many nations that could—that should—offer them refuge are barring the gates based on fear and ignorance, the United States being among the most derelict.
"It's criminal for the world to their backs on these people, who are just like you and me," Banerjee said. Working with Syrian refugees, she encounters bewilderment.
"A quote I often heard from families is, 'We are good people. We have had to leave behind our country and everything we hold dear. We are perceived as non-good people because of certain forces., We are running away from evil.' We need to understand in the United State, people seeking refuge in US are running away from forces that any citizen of us would want to run away, these people have lost family, home, hands of ISIS."
Banerjee can't understand how the United States can so completely forget its own history.
"This country was formed by people who had the courage to bring themselves and their families here and make a life for themselves" she said. "It's hard for me to understand a country with such as glorious past would turn their eyes from similar people in similar situations."
When I asked Banerjee what Catholic Relief needs most? Money? She said No. "We need advocacy, for people at decision-making levels to provide support for Syrian refugees. Ask your congressmen to open up their doors to more refugees, and bring about a lasting solution to the Syrian crisis."
The family Abdul Jabbar was waiting for arrived; he greeted them, went along with the church group sponsoring them to their apartment, where he translated. The father said his family had fled Burma 13 years previously.
"Our children were not allowed to study in the government schools," Jabbar translated for him. "We had to study at UN schools."
He was a construction worker, and his fondest hope was to become a citizen. His son, 12, would like to be an engineer.
"I have a big hope for myself and especially my children," the man said. "They will become educated and I will become a citizen. That is my big hope."
It's hard to overestimate the gratitude of the lucky few who manage to find refuge in the United States.
Abdul Jabbar settled on West Devon, part of a Rohingya community that he estimated at about 200 families. He works for Heartland Alliance. And his life in America now?
"I feel like a newborn baby," he said. "I saw the freedom of life, of peace. People are really friendly here. Really nice. People help me. I feel very happy here. Not like Malaysia."
As said before, that certainly changes the image of the peaceful Buddhists that we have, being picked on by the Chinese government.ReplyDelete
A reminder that all stereotypes, even positive ones, are rough and error-filled appraisals of reality.Delete
Alfred North Whitehead once wrote "Men think in generalities but live in particulars." William Blake, more judgmentally, said: "To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the lone distinction of merit."Delete
Regarding the notion of a "peaceful religion," the most vicious civil war in modern history was probably the one waged over the course of 30 years between Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist majority Singhalese population of the island of Sri Lanka. The "Tamil Tigers" will go down in history as inventors of the suicide vest, and the government forces responded to their attacks by lining public thoroughfares with Tamil heads mounted on stakes.
Oh yes, thanks for the reminder of the Tamil Tigers, TE. In later years though, mostly one just reads of of Buddists monks or nuns being tortured by the Chinese gov't.Delete
One can look at the horrors of Pol Pot in SE Asia but that's not religiously based.Delete
Well these East Asian Muslims not as dangerous as the Arabic ones or Pakistani ones or the Boku Haram related ones in Africa.Delete
Heartland Alliance is amazing. I'm gratefyl my daughter joined the Womans Board and taught me all they do for humanity. We have a governor who sadly lacks any.ReplyDelete
Great column, Neil.ReplyDelete
The Burmese politician saying "Rohingya doesn’t exist” reminds me of Mike Huckabee saying there's no such thing as a Palestinian. And he's not the only one who takes that line, IIRC. A singularly unhelpful approach.
Good column today. Can't stop thinking about it.ReplyDelete
Really worthy of wider distribution. There is so much bad info and anti-Muslim propaganda floating around, and this piece is like an antidote to those evil vibes.ReplyDelete
Haters will always hate - can't change what doesn't want change.ReplyDelete
It's sad the fear of retribution follows these people here, where they should be able to feel safe.ReplyDelete
Agree. Neil touched a number of good bases in his column and I'm a little sorry to have inadvertently kicked off a narrow discussion of which religion is most dangerous. A supportable generalization about that would be that, although Christianity had its fangs pulled more than others by the European enlightenment, all strongly held religious beliefs can inspire atrocities, but also acts of charity. In the latter respect people like the Rohingya applying for asylum should, for Christians, be who Jesus had in mind when (Matthew 5:3-10) he deemed those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness blessed and worthy of being taken in.ReplyDelete
Don't ever be sorry here, Tom. So you gave us an Historical reminder. You're a treasure.Delete
Hattie-- evil vibes??????ReplyDelete