As she tightens her traditional head covering, Bibiasha Mohamad Tahir’s thoughts move between the present and the past.
She watches her daughter playing on the living room floor of their apartment home in the American state of Indiana.
Tahir is a Muslim and a Rohingya refugee. She came to the United States in 2014 after fleeing Myanmar, a country also known as Burma. She has memories of death and destruction in her home village in Rakhine state.
“They shot and killed people,” Tahir told VOA. “They burnt down everything… we had (no) place to stay. They laid down broken glass, wire on the roads. They held people at gunpoint.”
Tahir and her family decided they could not stay in Myanmar because of the violence. Rohingya are not considered citizens in the country. She says they are not permitted to travel freely, unable to attend school or to work.
“We lived there for years, for generations,” Tahir told VOA. “Our grandparents lived there. Now they cannot live there in peace. They’re setting villages on fire, everything on fire. They are killing people. They are burning down everything. There is no peace,” she said.
More than 500,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar since the military launched an anti-terrorist operation in the country’s northwest.
A top United Nations human rights official called the campaign “ethnic cleansing” and has accused the military of serious human rights abuses.
Now hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh as they wait to move to another country.
The crisis has increased the number of Rohingya refugees arriving in the United States. Since 2015, the U.S. government has resettled more Rohingya than refugees from Syria’s civil war.
But instead of going to a city with a large Rohingya population – Tahir and her family went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and became the first Rohingya family in the area.
Burmese community members believe that there are now more than 150 Rohingya families in the Fort Wayne area. The Rohingya community is a small part of the 6,000 Burmese now living in the city.
Most of the foreign born Burmese population of Fort Wayne speak a different language and have a different religion than the Rohingya. The ethnic and religious tensions that fueled their flight from Myanmar are still an issue in the U.S.
“Why I don’t like Rohingya to come to Fort Wayne is …most of them…almost 100 percent…are Muslims,” said Abraham Thang, a Burmese Chin community leader.
Thang moved to Fort Wayne in the 1990s.
“They’re blood is Muslims, not Buddhist, not Christians,” he said. “They did a very terrible job, like attacking the military and police post and killing and murdering the Hindus. That is not good for Rohingyas. That is a big mistake by Rohingyas."
Thang is a leader at the Myanmar Indigenous Christian Church. He was one of the few Burmese who was willing to talk to VOA about the Rohingya settlement in Fort Wayne. While he says these are his own opinions, they represent the same issues the Rohingya experience in Myanmar.
“I don’t mind they practice what they believe,” Thang explained to VOA.
“What I mind is extremism,” he added. “Most of the terrorists come from the Muslim community. This is what I am thinking in my mind personally. So my opinion is rather than sending Rohingya to Fort Wayne – and not sending them is better – don’t send the Rohingya to Fort Wayne.”
“That’s unfortunate,” said Tom Henry, the mayor of Fort Wayne. He added “I want anybody from Myanmar to know they are welcome in our community.”
Henry, a member of the Democratic Party, has made Burmese integration a goal for his administration in this city of more than 250,000.
Thang, like some other community members, worries that increasing the number of new arrivals will increase problems.
“I foresee the Burmese people and the Rohingya people in the future, sooner or later, we will have conflict and that is not good for the Fort Wayne community."
Mayor Henry disagrees.
“I don’t see that happening. We have a very safe community.”
The Rohingya refugees in Fort Wayne who spoke to VOA said they do not believe they have been badly treated by other Burmese in the area. None report having experienced any hostility. And they say they have been welcomed and assisted in their resettlement.
While she feels safe, Bibiasha Mohamad Tahir wonders when she will finally feel at home.
“We couldn’t find peace in our country...how could we find peace here?” she asks.
I’m Susan Shand.
Kana Farabaugh reported this story for VOANews.com. Susan Shand adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
grandparent – n. a parent of one’s father or mother
indigenous - adj. living, or existing naturally in an area or environment
practice – v. to carry out or perform; to train by repeated exercises
unfortunate – adj. regrettable; resulting in bad luck
integration – n. the act or process of uniting different things