Coronavirus shutdown threatens Chicago's Rohingya cultural centre

Coronavirus crisis forces the centre to cancel Ramadan fundraiser and puts the community it serves in dire straits.

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    The centre has served hundreds of Rohingya refugees who fled anti-Muslim persecution in Myanmar [Courtesy of Rohingya Cultural Center]
    The centre has served hundreds of Rohingya refugees who fled anti-Muslim persecution in Myanmar [Courtesy of Rohingya Cultural Center]

    Chicago, Illinois - Ramadan for Chicago's only Rohingya Culture Center is not just a time for prayer, community and service, but also a time for survival. Every year, the centre, located in the heart of the major United States city's bustling South Asian community, hosts nightly iftars for the families it serves, pairing them with fundraising drives through local mosques to support the programming it provides to the city's Rohingya refugees who have settled here.

    About 12 percent of the centre's programming expenses, and the majority of its zakat fund (the obligatory charity required of all Muslims) for rental assistance and food distribution, comes from donations usually given during Ramadan, according to employees of the centre.

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    But this year, the coronavirus shutdown has shuttered the centre and local mosques. Families who once attended the centre's iftars are holding these meals in their homes instead. And without the annual Ramadan funding drive bringing in donations, the cultural centre's future remains uncertain, at a time when the community needs its services more than ever.

    The centre was started in 2016 by Nasir Zakaria, a Rohingya man originally from Myanmar, who arrived in Chicago with his wife and baby, a suitcase and not much else three years earlier. Zakaria escaped Myanmar, where the country's Rohingya minority has been persecuted for decades, in 1991, before spending about 20 years working various jobs in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia before coming to the United States. In 2016, he opened the Rohingya Culture Center.

    The centre has served hundreds of Rohingya refugees who fled anti-Muslim persecution in Myanmar, where they are one of the most oppressed demographics in the world. In Chicago, where about 1,600 Rohingya refugees have resettled, they rely on the centre for citizenship and English-language classes, Quran study, and job training and placement.

    "We have a budget for two, maybe three months," Zakaria said. "I am very worried about the centre." He added that they had to cancel English as a Second Language (ESL) and citizenship classes because they could not pay the teachers.

    'Extremely vulnerable'

    The coronavirus shutdown has impacted Chicago's wider Rohingya community as well. "In general, this population is extremely vulnerable," said Laura Toffenetti, the centre's assistant director.

    Most refugees do not speak English and because many have only recently begun to settle in Chicago, there is no pre-existing diaspora that can bring networks and intergenerational resources to provide support. The centre has helped many of them find work at O'Hare International Airport and various factories in the area, but many workers have had their hours slashed or were laid off in recent weeks, Zakaria said.

    Making their situation even more precarious is the fact that the neighbourhood where most of the Rohingya refugees live in has seen more than 750 confirmed coronavirus cases.

    Some of those who held jobs have received a one-time $1,200 stimulus cheque. What little unemployment insurance the centre's caseworkers have helped laid-off workers obtain barely covers their rent. Many have family in Myanmar who rely on them to send money because the government there prohibits the Rohingya from holding jobs there. About 50 families who have received asylum but not yet been granted work permits are not eligible for stimulus cheques or unemployment benefits, and are struggling to make ends meet.

    "Everyone needs money," Zakaria added. "The people who have jobs paid [April] rent. Next month, they're worried about."

    [Courtesy of Rohingya Cultural Center]
    Rohingya refugees rely on the centre for Quran study, citizenship and English-language classes, and job training and placement [Courtesy of Rohingya Cultural Center]

    Toffenetti said that in the past, local mosques have donated food boxes to needy families during Ramadan, and some are now providing gift cards instead. And while the centre is closed, its caseworkers are still working to connect refugees with service organisations.

    "We're still talking to people on the phone and scrambling to try to find money for people to be able to pay their rent and buy food," Toffenetti said.

    Until recently, the centre had relied on Ramadan donations and a grant to fund its operations. Toffenetti said this year, they hired a fundraising consultant and put together a plan that included giving presentations at mosques. But the pandemic and shutdown threw that into disarray.

    "We're in a really financially precarious position right now," Toffenetti said.

    "With the coronavirus, we have almost no ability to [raise] money," Zakaria added. "Our community and the cultural centre really need help."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News