(Image: New York Times)
The Bangladeshi community in New York City is galvanizing in support of the Rohingya — an ethnic minority enduring catastrophic levels of persecution in Myanmar. The community is raising funds, spreading the word and pressuring authorities to take a stance.
“It’s a burning issue in the Bangladeshi community,” said Manzur Ahmed, editor in chief of the Weekly Ajkal, a Bangladeshi newspaper in Jackson Heights that reports on the issue.
In August, the Myanmar military initiated a so-called “clearance” operation. According the United Nations, it is a textbook genocide, and more than 615,000 refugees have been driven into neighboring Bangladesh. The government and its leader, former Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, have been harshly criticized by the international community for their inaction. Kyi finally visited the afflicted Rakhine state earlier this month, but only a third of the 1.2 Rohingya who lived in the region are left.
Like their counterparts a world away, the 75,000-strong Bangladeshi community in New York City is establishing relief funds in community centers and mosques, marching for the cause and demanding action from the U.S. government, which sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to assess the situation last week.
“Everybody is trying to raise funds in their own capacity,” said Mirza Rahman, president of the Jackson Heights Islamic Center and Mosque. “When we were young we saw the war [the Bangladeshi War of Independence], so when we see people going through something like this, it is only natural.”
Organizations like the Bangla Brigade play a crucial role in raising awareness. Others, like the Burma Task Force, are key to the fundraising process. The group’s latest campaign has already raised more than $277,000, and the hope is that it will reach $500,000 by Dec 1.
“All our funds come from the community — individual donations and mosque donations,” said Adem Carroll, who directs the Burma Task Force branch in New York City. “Contrary to ‘Sputnik News’ we do not get any funds from [international businessman and philanthropist George] Soros or from other foundations, or government.”
But aiding victims of a crisis like the one in question is a vast and multilayered process. It involves getting policymakers to listen, hosting events and marches, supporting media access in the region and sending relief to those refugees who cross the border, so sometimes the question of how to curb the violence itself gets lost in the mix. And this is the most difficult question of all.
Sanctions are one solution, but according to Carroll, certain communities tend to be heard by Congress more attentively than others.
“They’re trying to see what works with this new administration,” he said. There is, if nothing else, the one constant that can be relied upon in any circumstance: persistence. “That’s the basic role,” said Carroll. “Putting pressure.”
However, putting pressure on authorities doesn’t work unless you have people with clout, influence and experience behind the project — people like Simon Billeness, who was described by The New York Times as a “super-specialist” in using financial power to fight foreign oppression.
“Back in the ’90s and early 2000s the goal was to impose sanctions on a ruling military regime. This time it’s similar to Darfur, the goal is to put sanctions on the army itself,” said Billeness, who is pushing for Congress to reimpose those sanctions.
Hear Billeness tell it, and the multinational corporations are next; companies operating in plain sight of the persecution and refusing to take a stance, among them Nestle, Pepsi and Microsoft. Even in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights people are beginning to talk about getting them to act.
Inside a drafty cafÈ near the Jackson Heights mosque, Rahman moves between hope and quiet intensity. “If business starts acting then something will happen,” he says, wrapping his coat tighter around his shoulders. “They can put pressure on the government. Otherwise the atrocity will not stop. Globalization is such that we know everybody, we know everything.”
You can read the article on Queens Chronicle's website here.