The latest installment of I’m An American tells the story of a Rohingya man. The series explores what it means to be an American for people from underrepresented groups. It also gives them the chance to share their stories about their racial and ethnic identities.
I met Anuwar Kasim on a chilly Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. It was at the headquarters of the Burmese Rohingya Community of Wisconsin (BRCW) on Howell near Layton Boulevard.
Kasim greeted me with a smile. He was busy straightening up around the office, preparing for a meeting later in the day.
He is a Rohingya refugee and co-founder of BRCW. Kasim was born in Burma, the country in Southeast Asia that’s also referred to as Myanmar.
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority there and have been fleeing religious violence, persecution and military rule. Many have had their homes and villages destroyed. Hundreds have been killed.
"We call ourselves Rohingya, but the Burmese government call us illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Whereby we are not — we came there a long time ago," Kasim says.
Since then, he says the Rohingya have been subjected to discrimination.
"They didn’t give us access to education, to health care, to anything. They didn’t allow us to do business. They didn’t allow us to farm there. They didn’t allow us to cut firewood. So, everything they put restriction on us there, so we live under a very discriminative, very repressive government. And its people as well. So, life is very tough," he says.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs says the Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
“When you become a target for the military, people leave the country to save their life. People ended up in Bangladesh, some ended up in Thailand, some ended up in Malaysia,” Kasim says.
He left Myanmar and spent about 10 years as a refugee in Malaysia.
In 2015, Kasim and members of his family — his wife, two children, and one of his brothers — were resettled in Milwaukee. Kasim and his wife welcomed their third child soon after.
That same year, more than 2,000 other Rohingya refugees were resettled in Milwaukee. Today, Milwaukee likely has the largest Rohingya population in the United States, according to State Department figures.
Compared to Myanmar, Kasim says people in Milwaukee have been much more kind and welcoming to him and his family.
“Before we are living a very difficult, miserable life, refugee life where you become the subject of people looking down on you, spitting on you, treating you differently, like no value. But after we arrived here, give you some sort of sense that I’m a human being as well, I can get same treatment," he explains.
Kasim says he’s enjoyed partaking in traditional American holidays like Christmas and Halloween, thanks to invites from his friends.
“I feel that I’m slowly becoming part of this culture, part of this country. I am one of them. It gives you some set of belongings, that I feel that I belong to this place,” he says.
Kasim says he’s excited for the opportunities the future holds for his children. Growing up as Americans, he says they’ll be able to experience things he never could.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Rohingya people, or what they’ve been through, Kasim says: “I’d like to tell every American to give us time, to be patient with us. We are good people, we are peace loving people.”
He adds that the Rohingya people want what everyone in the country desires: a safe home for their kids and for their future.
Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.
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