The first time the military picked up Nasir Zakaria he was walking to the bazaar to get food for his father. Aged 14, he was one of two dozen Rohingya boys plucked for a day of slave labor in another routine act of persecution in Myanmar against the ethnic minority.
The third time Zakaria was taken, he was forced at gunpoint to carry military supplies into the jungle. This time, the soldiers gave him water. “It basically gets to a point where you are hoping so much that you can get away,” he says, “even if you get away and you die at their hands.”
I’m so happy the people of Chicago come to me, knock on the door, say ‘How can we help you?’
Zakaria escaped soon after. Unable to return home, for fear of capture, he fled alone to Bangladesh, then to Malaysia, where he worked construction, but as an “illegal” still had to hide. For five years, until he received his refugee card, he slept under a plastic sheet in the jungle.
“Refugee life is like a soccer ball,” he says. “Always moving.” Twenty-three years after leaving his family, at age 38, Zakaria was admitted to the United States with his wife, daughter, and grandfather.
“I’m so happy,” he says. “After one month I work but I didn’t get chance to learn English, get education.”
In Myanmar, the Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship and denied access to school, travel, certain jobs, or court. About 1,400 Rohingya refugees have resettled in Chicago since 2012, and Zakaria wants to ensure they have the opportunity to learn.
So in 2016, while washing dishes on the graveyard shift at an Illinois casino, a 2-hour commute each way, Zakaria secured space and funding from the Zakat Foundation to open the Rohingya Cultural Center, on Chicago’s north side. Volunteers help provide English classes, job training, children’s tutoring, and more. For many in this particularly vulnerable population, it marks their first such opportunity.
“I’m so happy the people of Chicago come to me, knock on the door, say ‘How can we help you?’ ” Zakaria says. “I tell our people: This is so important to us. We are free. We are free in the United States.”