Note: This interview took place ahead of events reported Monday morning out of Myanmar, where government leaders were detained amid rumors of an impending coup attempt. We’re monitoring the situation and will update as needed.
On his first day in office, President Biden repealed the Trump administration’s ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority and African countries. In a statement, Biden said “Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
Suddenly, many immigrant communities in the United States were granted a renewed hope that they could reunite with relatives still living abroad. But there are still many challenges for immigrant communities in the Pacific Northwest. Many have been working for years to help family members resettle from abroad to live with them.
That’s the case in Oregon’s Rohingya community. The Rohingya have faced significant displacement across the region since the 1970s, but that displacement skyrocketed in 2017 when the United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed by Myanmar’s state forces. The U.N. described the attacks as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
(It’s worth noting that both names of the country — Burma and Myanmar — are contested: some critics say Myanmar is problematic because it’s the name that was elevated by the military junta that took over several decades ago and hasn’t been approved by the citizens; others say Burma is problematic because it’s the colonial name, and the country’s current government argues it refers to a single, large ethnic group and isn’t inclusive of all residents.)
As a result of the widespread violence, nearly a million Rohingya have fled their homeland of Myanmar. Most are refugees in the neighboring country of Bangladesh, but about a thousand have resettled here in Southeast Portland.
Reza Uddin says he was the first Rohingya to settle in Oregon, when he came to study chemistry and physics at the University of Portland in the late 1980s. Today, he’s the founder of Friends of Rohingya USA, an organization supporting humanitarian efforts benefiting the Rohingya people.
Uddin says that almost everyone in Portland’s Rohingya community has family members back in Myanmar or in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Several were already in the process of trying to help family members resettle to Oregon when Myanmar was added to the travel ban in January 2020. The irony is that the ban applied only to immigration, not travel and student visas. A loved one living in a refugee camp in a foreign country isn’t interested in coming to the USA for a vacation.
“If you (were) coming to visit you can come,” Uddin says. “If you’re coming as a student, you are able to obtain the visa. If you’re coming as an immigrant, someone who applied to come here: no.”
Uddin says the community feels relief that the travel ban has been rescinded, but they’re still reliant on two additional moves from the Biden administration. For the 860,000 Rohingya still living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, a revision of the United States’ quota on refugees is essential. The US settled nearly 85,000 refugees in this country as recently as 2016; the refugee limit set by the former Trump administration stood at only 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal year. President Biden has said he plans to reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees, but hasn’t acted yet.
Secondly, Uddin is hopeful the Biden administration will acknowledge the gravity of the crimes against the Rohingya people and push the government of Myanmar for change. He sees an ally in the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Myanmar and criticized the persecution of the Rohingya while serving in the Obama administration.
“He is very aware of what is the situation for the Rohingya,” Uddin says.
The Rohingya people also have a strong ally in U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon. He led the first congressional fact-finding mission to Myanmar in 2017. In 2020, he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying “We urge you and President Trump to speak out forcefully and publicly about these atrocities, acknowledging the gravity of the crimes with a determination of crimes against humanity and genocide.”
Uddin hopes Merkley will revisit the situation and push the Biden administration to finally acknowledge the crimes, and pressure the Myanmar government to allow the Rohingya refugees to safely return home.
Ultimately, resettlement in the United States is a solution for only a tiny fraction of the Rohingya who are displaced in Bangladesh today. Uddin says being able to return home — with dignity and rights — is the most important thing for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
“We are not looking to bring all the people into the US,” he says. “What they are hoping is pressure from the US government and new administration that Burma is able to take all the people that are displaced in various places: those Rohingya people in the camp are able to go back to their own land.”
Listen to Reza Uddin’s interview with OPB Weekend Edition Host John Notarianni using the audio player above