Ramadan for Chicago’s only Rohingya Culture Center is not just a time for prayer, community, and service, but also a time for survival. Every year, the center, located in the heart of the major United States city’s bustling South Asian community, hosts nightly iftars for the families it serves, pairing them with fundraising drives through local mosques to support the programming it provides to the city’s Rohingya refugees who have settled here.
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About 12 percent of the center’s programming expenses, and the majority of its zakat fund (the obligatory charity required of all Muslims) for rental assistance and food distribution, comes from donations usually given during Ramadan, according to employees of the center.
But this year, the coronavirus shutdown has shuttered the center and local mosques. Families who once attended the center’s iftars are holding these meals in their homes instead. And without the annual Ramadan funding drive bringing in donations, the cultural center’s future remains uncertain, at a time when the community needs its services more than ever.
The center was started in 2016 by Nasir Zakaria, a Rohingya man originally from Myanmar, who arrived in Chicago with his wife and baby, a suitcase and not much else three years earlier. Zakaria escaped Myanmar, where the country’s Rohingya minority has been persecuted for decades, in 1991, before spending about 20 years working various jobs in Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia before coming to the United States. In 2016, he opened the Rohingya Culture Center.
The center has served hundreds of Rohingya refugees who fled anti-Muslim persecution in Myanmar, where they are one of the most oppressed demographics in the world. In Chicago, where about 1,600 Rohingya refugees have resettled, they rely on the center for citizenship and English-language classes, Quran study, and job training and placement.
“We have a budget for two, maybe three months,” Zakaria said. “I am very worried about the center.” He added that they had to cancel English as a Second Language (ESL) and citizenship classes because they could not pay the teachers.
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