On a summer morning in a West Rogers Park apartment, Abdullah Abdu Munaf knelt near the doorway, tying his shoes before he took the bus to work. Rita Baldi, a volunteer with the nonprofit Exodus World Service, left hers by the door to come in.
Baldi was there for her regular Tuesday visit with the family of Rohingya refugees originally from Myanmar. Chicago is home to one of the largest concentrations of Rohingya refugees in the United States. As of May, more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
It’s where some of their family remain, and they hope to reunite with them soon.
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On that day, Baldi pulled out a coloring and sticker book that had faceless animals waiting for eyes, ears and noses to be added.
“What are these?” Baldi asked Rushan Abdullah, one of Munaf’s two daughters, as she tapped the 4-year-old’s ears.
“Ears,” Rushan exclaimed with a smile.
Baldi, and her friends Paula Gleason Risk and Angela Carlson, whom she volunteers with, had planned to visit with the family just for the three months Exodus World Service asks volunteers commit to. But they’ve stayed for longer, coming up on a year in October.
“I’ve learned more about my culture, our crazy language,” Risk said. “There’s a lot of beauty and depth in our cultures that we can share.”
And through their church, St. Mary’s Episcopal, they’ve collected donations for welcome packs. But with the decline in refugees being allowed into the United States, the pantry has stocked up on supplies.
“We haven’t gotten the call in awhile,” Risk said.
Other days, Baldi helps Rushan’s mother, Tashminara Sultan Ahmed, practice her English, when they trace back the steps the family took that led them to the United States.
Munaf “was born in Myanmar,” the narrative begins. “His mother died when he was 8 years old and his father died two years later. … He left Myanmar and went to live in Bangladesh.”
The journey by foot took seven days and seven nights, Munaf said. And it was a dangerous one.
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“If 1,000 were to come to Malaysia,” Munaf said through a translator, “500 people will be dead. Shot by the police.”
Munaf counted on his hand all the places he lived as he described fleeing to Bangladesh, Malaysia and eventually the U.S. with his family.
They were resettled in September by Heartland Alliance, where Munaf still occasionally attends English classes. The agency has long been an integral part of aiding refugees in the Chicago area, but recently has come under scrutiny for its treatment of children separated from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border who were housed in its shelters.
Now, the family has lived in Chicago for nearly a year. Munaf encourages friends stuck in limbo in refugee camps abroad to come if they can.
He tells them, “This is a good place for your daughter. For you. You’ll feel happy here.”
His friends tell him, he says, “‘If the U.N. called, I would come.’”
It’s a call Ahmed’s own mother and brother are waiting for.
“My daughter, I’m alone here,” Ahmed’s 60-year-old mother tells her when she calls from a refugee camp in Bangladesh. “If I come here with you, I maybe live 10 more years.”
Volunteers were busy planning a baby shower for Ahmed, who is pregnant and expecting her third daughter later this month. But Ahmed’s mind is on her mother.
“Rohingya people suffer so much,” Munaf said. “They just want Donald Trump to help them to come here to make them feel safe.”