In September 2017, Muhammad Habib Ismail joined fellow Rohingya Muslims on a march through downtown Chicago. The march, organized by the Rohingya Cultural Center, was to protest the Myanmar military’s campaign of rape, arson, and killing of Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, which UN investigators found to have been carried out “with genocidal intent.”
In Myanmar, the Rohingya are commonly referred to as “Bengalis,” alluding to their perceived status as illegal interlopers despite having lived in the Buddhist-majority country for generations. They have been stateless since a 1982 law stripped them of citizenship. In August 2017, the Myanmar military launched “clearance operations” in retaliation against an attack on military outposts in northern Rakhine State by insurgent group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. An estimated 730,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh in the following months.
More than 900,000 Rohingya currently live in camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, which now holds the largest refugee settlement in the world, according to the United Nations. A further 128,000 remain in camps on the outskirts of Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, where they have been denied freedom of movement or access to basic services since fleeing their homes during a wave of intercommunal violence in 2012.
Ismail was born in Kelantan, Malaysia, in 1994 with no documentation other than a refugee card issued through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His paternal grandparents fled from Myanmar with his father during a mass exodus of Rohingya in 1978. Ismail’s maternal grandparents, who are Muslim but not Rohingya, sent his mother to Malaysia along with an aunt when she was six, in hopes that she would have better economic prospects than in Myanmar. Ismail’s parents met when his mother was 14 and his father 17. They married within the year and had three children.
In Malaysia, where refugees are classified together with undocumented immigrants, Ismail’s family did not have access to public services or legal employment. When he was a child, his father scraped together an income selling Islamic books door-to-door. As is customary in many Rohingya families, his father did not allow his mother to work. Ismail attended public school until fourth grade, when his teacher asked for his legal documentation for a field trip.
“That’s when they came to know I was a refugee,” he remembers. It was the end of his education in Malaysia. Only 11 years old, he started working, and over the next six years held jobs washing cars and processing chickens. Without legal authorization to work and unable to advocate for his rights, he earned less than his Malaysian coworkers—about $3.50 per hour—and was often denied pay.
In 2008, Ismail’s father suffered a stroke that rendered him barely able to speak or walk. Denied access to Malaysia’s free public health care and unable to afford medical fees, he relied on herbal remedies. Ismail, then 14, became the family’s sole wage earner. With funds running dry, his mother traveled to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to request assistance from UNHCR. Three months later, they were informed that they would be considered for resettlement to the United States. The screening process under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program—extensive interviews, medical and security checks—took four years.
Ismail’s mother initially viewed resettlement with trepidation. Neither she nor her husband were literate, they didn’t have close friends or family in America, and she worried about finding halal food and a Muslim community in a foreign city. She told her children she agreed to go to give them the chance for an education.
In July 2012, Ismail’s family was one of the first Rohingya families to reach Chicago. Larger numbers began arriving in 2013 and ’14 and have since tapered off. Chicago now hosts the largest Rohingya refugee population in the country, estimated at 1,500. The next-largest population is in Milwaukee, with smaller clusters scattered throughout the country, according to Laura Toffenetti, assistant director of the Rohingya Cultural Center.
Toffenetti says that Chicago—with its long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees and a sizable Muslim population on Devon Street in West Ridge—is a desirable place for Rohingya to settle. The Cultural Center, which opened in 2016 at California and Devon Streets, provides social services and education to support refugee adjustment, and holds activities aiming to celebrate and preserve Rohingya language and culture.
“The biggest challenges are for the teens who arrive here with little or no education experience and [who] are put in schools [according to their] age,” says Toffenetti. She adds that many parents “have no experience being in school, so even though they value education, they are unable to help their children” progress academically. Under these circumstances, adolescents often drop out to work.
In their first three months in America, Ismail’s family received a set of core services from their resettlement agency, Heartland Alliance, in accordance with national refugee policy and aimed at promoting self-sufficiency. The services included case management, employment assistance, and apartment rental and financial assistance; they received an additional five months of social services that Heartland Alliance funds through grants and donations. Heartland Alliance’s Refugee and Immigrant Community Services office in Ravenswood supports more than 300 refugees from conflict-affected countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East each year.
Heartland Alliance rented the family an apartment on Devon Street in West Ridge and within three months, Ismail’s mother secured a job packing chicken at Tyson Foods. At $10.50 per hour, it barely covered the family’s $740 per month rent and other living expenses, so the family’s caseworker suggested that Ismail start working as well. His mother disagreed, and Ismail enrolled in Mather High School. He was 17, and could just barely graduate by Illinois’s age cutoff of 21.
When Ismail left school in Malaysia, he was just learning division and multiplication and had never formally studied English. At Mather, he needed to take the subjects required by the state to graduate. Elena Indman, Ismail’s English as a Second Language chemistry teacher, says he was the school’s first Rohingya student.
“When Habib came to Mather, I remember his eyes,” Indman says. “The boy could not speak English, and he was just looking in the teachers’ eyes, and the eyes of students, trying to get some information.”
Struggling to grasp the basic concepts, Ismail began skipping school. By the end of the first semester, he was failing all his classes. A warning from a Bangladeshi classmate turned his outlook around: “If you don’t graduate, then you’ll have wasted your years here.” Ismail began studying at the library and staying after school to meet his teachers. By the end of the year, he had brought his grades up to Bs.
“He was sitting in my class, a student who at first could not read or write, and he was solving problems in chemistry. It was incredible,” Indman says. “Nobody spoke his language, but he figured [it] out.”
Mather, located in West Ridge, is one of Chicago’s most diverse high schools, according to the principal, Peter Auffant. The school’s 1,500 students speak more than 60 languages and represent more than 140 countries of origin. “We work hard as a staff to build a community where everyone belongs. . . . The fact that we are all so different is the one thing we all have in common,” he says. For Ismail, this diversity enabled him to establish a community. “I was able to make friends from different countries because I spoke broken English and they did the same,” he says. “People didn’t make fun of me.”
In a single classroom, Indman says, she sometimes has students who speak more than 20 languages. Many, like Ismail, have interrupted educational backgrounds or lack formal education prior to enrolling in Mather. Indman compared Ismail’s determination with other first-generation immigrants and refugees, including herself—she came to America as a refugee in the 90s from the former Soviet Union. “We are survivors,” she says.
Of Ismail, she notes, “Life brought him to the level of adult too soon.” Nonetheless, she was impressed with his desire to make up for lost time. “If he had a question, he would always ask. He was trying to close [the] gap in his education.”
Meanwhile, Ismail’s father, still unable to work, remained idle at home, while his mother worked long shifts at Tyson. “I think that frustrated [my father] the most,” Ismail says. “He would stay at home the whole day . . . He would get angry at every small thing. He would start yelling, he’d start accusing you of something you didn’t do, and he would become violent.”
When Ismail’s mother came home late one night after working an overtime shift, his father questioned her whereabouts. The dispute turned physical, and Ismail intervened. When his father threatened him with a kitchen knife, his younger sister called the police. Ismail says that the arrival of the police felt “like God had sent angels from above.” Nonetheless, he convinced his mother not to press criminal charges, because of the sacrifices his father had made for the family in Malaysia and America.
Ismail had been fascinated by law enforcement since childhood and has since taken the written and physical exams to be a Chicago police officer. “I don’t want anyone else to be in the situation I was in. I want to serve and protect the community that I’ve been living in,” he says. His mother worries about the risks, but she knows his mind can’t be changed. “She always tells me, ‘If that’s what you want to do, just go for it.'”
In 2016, Ismail became the first person in his family to graduate high school. “I still remember my mom crying, looking at me in the gown,” he says. After Ismail’s graduation, his older sister, who reached Chicago a few years after him, moved to Milwaukee with her husband and children in search of more affordable housing and better economic prospects. Ismail’s father joined them.
Ismail enrolled at Wilbur Wright College, attending morning classes and working nights at Wendy’s. He now works night shifts at O’Hare International Airport as a passenger service agent for Frontier Airlines. He sleeps for a few hours and then does morning deliveries for GrubHub. Because his annual income surpasses the threshold to qualify for federal student aid, Ismail paused for two years to save money, and resumed classes this month.
Last July, Ismail became a citizen. The ceremony made him remember his childhood in Malaysia, when “I didn’t have any hope, because I was in the country where I was born, and I wasn’t able to get citizenship,” he says. In March, he went back for the first time. Many of his former neighbors were still living in marginal conditions, struggling to find work and earn a basic living.
“Now I have a place I can call home,” he says. “Coming [to America], being able to work, being able to finish my school, being able to pursue my dreams—it means a lot.”
When President Trump’s travel ban went into effect in January 2017, suspending the Refugee Admissions Program and restricting the admission of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Ismail was on duty at the airport. At first he was dismayed and feared that “people don’t want us in their country.” His hope, however, was restored upon seeing crowds demonstrating against the ban at the arrival hall. “We still have people who are supporting us, who believe in equality,” he says.
While Ismail has never set foot in Myanmar, he says he participated in the 2017 demonstrations against the plight of the Rohingya out of a sense of solidarity. “We protested so the people who were being killed, being raped, whose houses were being burned down—so that international organizations would step up and do something about it,” he says. “Even though we live in a better condition now, we haven’t forgotten those who are dying.” v