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After Escaping Violence, Rohingya Refugees In North Texas Pursue Education, Find Community

Pablo Arauz Peña
KERA News special contributor
Women participate in English class at the Islamic Circle of North America in Dallas.

There’s an ongoing crisis in Myanmar – formerly Burma — caused by violence against Rohingya Muslims. Many call it genocide. It’s led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of members of the ethnic minority.

More Rohingya refugees have been moving to North Texas over the past few years for job opportunities and a supportive Muslim community. And many of them turn to the Islamic Circle of North America for help.

Zahid Hussain, director of the Dallas branch of the Islamic organization, says that a few years ago they didn’t serve many Rohingya refugees.

“But from 2014 onwards, we started getting a bunch of them — like every year, 50 families, 60 families,” he said. “Right now, we have about 264 families, if I’m right, Rohingya families registered, who are seeking constant help from us.”

The Islamic Circle works to provide basic needs, like food, transportation and medical assistance for Muslim refugees from all over the world, including the Rohingya, who are being forced out of Myanmar.

They’ve been described as "the world's most persecuted minority.” A United Nations official has called it ethnic cleansing. And many face some of the tallest barriers.

“One of the main challenges in dealing with Rohingya is their mindset since they are not educated,” Hussain said.

So, the Islamic Circle in Dallas works to open doors for these refugees through education.

“We thought that rather than always helping them through paying rent and providing them with food, why not teach them a skill through which they can stand on their own legs,” Hussain said.

Where Shahida Iwintin grew up, education is forbidden, especially for women. She lost her parents to violence as a teenager almost 30 years ago. Iwintin escaped and ended up in Texas through a refugee resettlement program.

But she struggles with English.

“Don’t understand English, don’t read, don’t write,” she said. “It very problem.”

That’s why the Dallas organization holds English as a Second Language classes for Iwintin and other women like her, so she can perform daily tasks, like shopping for food.

“I come here in ESL class and taught little bit and [I’m] very happy,” she said.

'Dream come true'

While some refugees take classes at the Islamic Circle, others pave their own path. Twenty-year-old Mohammad Mohammad and his family settled in Dallas a few years ago.

“[My family] escaped the persecution that was happening in Burma,” he said. “My dad was like 16 years old. Around there, he went to Malaysia to seek protection for himself because there was a lot of violence going on.”

Mohammad was born in Malaysia but identifies as Rohingya.

“My dad don’t want me to have life like him, like, you know doing hard labor, hard job,” Mohammad said.

Even when they escaped the violence in Myanmar, the Rohingya still face discrimination in host countries, like Malaysia.

All Mohammad wanted was an education, so his father wrote to a resettlement program and made his son’s education a priority.

“He seek and write this in paper and he sent it every day and he faxed it every day,” he said.

Mohammad’s family waited for a year and a half.

“So one day they get it. The office get it and they call us and say that, ‘You have an interview for resettlement in another country,’” he recalled. “So we went there and the process went up, and then in the six-month period, they told us that we are going to America and that we are going to USA, and it was just, like, dream come true.”

In the four years since his family moved to North Texas, Mohammad learned English, graduated high school, and now, he’s in college at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Still, he’s reminded of what’s happening in Myanmar. Mohammad’s uncle was killed in recent violence. Every village destroyed, every house burned down just adds to the grief.

Mohammad hopes that one day things will be different for the Rohingya.

“Imagine like thousands of people with education: doctors, engineers, political people,” he said. “How successful would that country be? I look at it that way — a peaceful society, you know.”

He says he just doesn’t want the Rohingya living in fear.

Pablo Arauz Peña is the breaking news reporter for KERA News.