CHICAGO — A mass exodus of Rohingya people from the northern province of Myanmar is now the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis, according to the UN, and as a result Chicago now has one of the largest Rohingya refugee populations in the country.
Of Rohingya seeking refuge in the U.S., just over 1,500 have settled in Chicago neighborhoods, desperate to create a new life. Among them is the Jalal family, who waited more than five years to make it to their Rogers Park Apartment. It may be sparse, but it's the safest place they've ever known. Forida Jalal said she fled Bangledesh when she was 18.
"The things that happened to us are too hard to say. No one wants to leave their homeland but if we stayed they would have killed us like the rest," Forida said.
For the last five years, Forida and her husband Hasu have been living in a refugee camp in Malaysia, waiting on UN cardholder status so they could immigrate to the U.S. Both of their daughters were born there, and knew nothing outside the camp boundaries until they left last October.
They arrived with nothing more than the bags on their back and the federal government relocation check for $1,125 to start their new life in Chicago. Organizations like Heartland Alliance help refugee families like the Jalals from there.
"We've resettled Rohingya refugees for the last four years but in the past month alone, we've had around 15-20 cases arrive," Heartland Alliance Associate Director Lea Tienou-Gustafson said.
Heartland Alliance helps the refugees secure housing, identification, jobs and classes to learn English. This last year they assisted over 1,000 individuals right here in Chicago.
"We heard about a different life," Hasu Jalal said, "but when we came here we couldn't believe it. We are now seeing it. I can work legally. I can buy food for my family."
Seven months later, the family is settling and and slowly grasping not only the language, but also their new surroundings.
"Here we walk freely. No one asks me why I'm here. We appreciate these things we never had before," says Hasu Jalal.
Families like the Jalals are in the minority. Many of the 650,000 Rohingya refugees remain in limbo, stuck in refugee camps and essentially stateless.
If you'd like to know more about organizations like the Heartland Alliance that help refugees, you can visit their website.