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Steinberg: Muslim refugees arrives in America with ‘big hope’

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 family coming through the door in a few minutes.

He knows. He is also a Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority in Myanmar, the former Burma. How oppressed? Last year, the government refused to let anyone register as “Rohingya” on the national census.

“Rohingya doesn’t exist,” said a member of the parliament, news to the refugees who live in camps, 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.

When he was 12, Jabbar would be seized on his way to school and forced to work, unpaid, pressed by local military officers into being a porter. 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,”

But not the only persecuted minority. The United Nations High Command 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. “It was not something that would affect their life. It was another conflict in the Middle East.”

“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. “You are talking about people who are very cultured, very educated, and had a pretty good life.”

“Then you look at what their status is today, it’s very sad,” she said. “It just breaks your heart. 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.

“It’s criminal for the world to turn their backs on these people, who are just like you and me,” Banerjee said.

The family Abdul Jabbar was waiting for arrived; he greeted them, went along with the church group sponsoring them to their West Rogers Park apartment, where he translated. The family of five had fled Myanmar 13 years earlier.

“Our children were not allowed to study in the government schools,” Jabbar translated.

The father was a construction worker, and his fondest hope was to become a citizen.

“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 in West Devon in 2012, part of a Rohingya community of about 200 families. And his life in America now?

“I feel like a newborn baby,” he said. “I saw the freedom of life, of peace. I feel very happy here. Not like Malaysia.”

Note: Changes have been made, Chicago Sun Times is not responsible for these.

Source: Chicago Sun Times