In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the terrible toll it’s taken on the the city of Chicago and especially on it’s black and brown residents, there’s one population whose plight has been severely exacerbated by the virus and yet who’s been virtually absent from the media headlines: recently resettled Rohingya refugees.
“For many, COVID-19 must feel like a reminder of the fear and isolation they hoped to leave behind,” said Michael O’Connor, secretary of FORA, a non-profit located in West Rogers Park that aims to empower refugees arriving in the US by providing them with educational resources such as tutoring and English lessons.
“Imagine fleeing from ethnic cleansing or genocide and being sent to a new country. You arrive, work two jobs and are proud to be paying the rent, utilities and food for your family….And then the pandemic hits.”
“Like millions of others, you lose your jobs, and on top of everything, COVID-19 is ripping through your community, which suffers from health issues because of spending years in overcrowded refugee camps. However, you don’t yet fully understand how to navigate your new country’s social services or health systems. Almost everything seems so foreign to you, because almost everything is,” he says. In addition, with several generations residing in one household, it can be difficult to protect older family members or isolate those who are sick, especially if the living space is small. With limited access to personal transportation, it can be difficult to get to healthcare facilities. And with lack of access to television or internet, it may be difficult to receive information regarding COVID-19—not to mention the challenges posed by the language barrier.
FORA works with predominantly Rohingya refugees, a Muslim-minority community that has faced decades of systemic discrimination, statelessness, and targeted violence in the majority-Buddihst country of Myanmar. In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled into Bangladesh following a deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s army on Rohingya Muslims, a few thousand of which have been admitted to the United States. Chicago has one of the largest number of Rohingya refugees which have settled in the United States.
“This was the first time a lot of them were learning to write with a pen”, explains Imran Akbar, treasurer for Chicago’s Rohingya Cultural Center, a community-based social service organization aimed at serving the needs of the Rohingya refugee population in Chicago. One of the greatest challenges to acculturation for the Rohingya people is language and education, as many are not literate in any language due to the systemic denial of their right to an education. The RCC works with communities to overcome this hurdle by offering ESL and citizenship classes, as well as assistance with translation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the essential work of the center on hold.
Unlike schools that have transitioned to online learning, the RCC has faced several challenges to transition: many Rohingya families don’t own computers, and those who do struggle to navigate platforms like Zoom. However, an organization like FORA—with the capacity to purchase a plethora of iPads, Chromebooks and headsets—has found greater success. “When the public schools transitioned to online, we realized that our students – kids who might not have access to adults who could read in English – were at risk of falling seriously behind,” explains O’Connor. However, with an outpouring of volunteers from across the country, online learning enabled FORA to double its students.
As the rates of unemployment continue to rise, the Rohingya have also suffered disproportionately in this respect. According to Akbar, the Rohingya community’s limited education restricts them to entry-level positions—such as janitorial staff, food or taxi service—where the type of work and workplace environment can increase the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 due to the nature of such “essential” industries as well as the lack of sick leave and the inability to work remotely. Thus, many of these positions have been eliminated, leaving countless Rohingya unemployed. Though the RCC’s doors have mostly closed since COVID-19, they’ve responded to this crisis by shifting their focus towards assisting in unemployment and other benefits such as rental assistance and stimulus checks.
However, according to one volunteer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, even providing such essential social services have become a nearly impossible task under the social distancing mandate of the pandemic. “All the families I work with have no computers or printers. I have to employ countless online services like electronic signatures, screen recordings and three-way calling just to get things done. Sometimes, I had no option other than doing all the work, then driving to them to obtain their signatures on my device before submitting” she explains.
Even worse, the absence of social interaction for refugees is a particular challenge because “face-to-face interaction is necessary in order to overcome the language barrier and adapt to new cultural differences.” Refugees already arrive in a state of social isolation due to the challenges communicating and a lack of pre-established networks; the process of breaking down such barriers takes years. Factoring in the virus, “if the pandemic’s forced isolation continues, it will make a big impact on this process” she says.
Another challenge to social integration is the “real sense of trauma in this society and distrust of other people… a lot of these people have seen their family members killed or lost” Akbar explains. And yet, at his work at FORA, O’Connor has observed greater resilience in the refugee community members than he has in those born in the US. He reflects, “This situation is a great example of how refugees make our American communities stronger; they set an example for me every day of what it means to be resilient.”
And while refugees like Chicago’s Rohingya community are fighting to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration has weaponized the pandemic to indefinitely seal the country off to refugees seeking protection, citing risks of infection from foreigners. This most recent move, in a nearly four-year long campaign to stop or slow resettlement, is just another indication of how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to surface a crisis of solidarity with the international community.
Though refugees are positioned at the intersection of countless vulnerabilities and inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connor remains in admiration of the resilience and strength of Chicago Rohingya refugee community. “‘Refugee Resilient’ is something I now tell myself every time an obstacle seems too big for me to overcome. The people I ‘serve,’ serve me more than they will ever know,” he reflects. Refugees are no strangers to crisis, and perhaps we can take from them lessons of resilience on our road to recovery, solidarity, and equity.