Since 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingya have risked their lives by taking to the sea to flee persecution in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Their stateless status, plus other extreme government restrictions, leave them at risk of mass atrocities and even genocide.
"I have never had the feeling someone is like, 'Oh, you are the refugee,'" said Nasir Bin Zakaria, one of nearly 1,000 Rohingya refugees who have resettled in Chicago in the past few years. "This is my future, the new life. We can say, 'We are the new baby, born here.'"
"In the United States, we've been here for almost two, three years, and we have a center," Bin Zakaria explained.
The Rohingya Culture Center of Chicago opened in April. In addition to hosting ESL classes and after-school tutoring, it also gives families a safe space to pray and learn Arabic.
"This is [the] time to do something for our people: learn and get an education. And we want to show something to our people in Burma. We are here. We are learning for you," Bin Zakaria said.
Laura Toffenetti, a retired teacher who volunteers at the center, added: "We don't appreciate how hard it is to come to a new country and not know the language and not know the customs and how to try to fit in. And the more we reach out to them, the more successful they'll be. And that's better for everybody."
Bin Zakaria had a message for all Americans: "Muslims, non-Muslims, everyone is welcome in the center. We need help, and we can help you. If you want to help us, we can help our people."