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A Rohingya Refugee's Year

A Rohingya Refugee’s Year: Searching For Stability And Community In Boston

Muhammad Anwar, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, sits on the front steps of his apartment.
Muhammad Anwar, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, sits on the front steps of the apartment he shares with four other people in Boston’s Dorchester Neighborhood.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News
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A Rohingya Refugee's Year

This is the fourth story in a WGBH News series following two Rohingya refugees as they make their way in Boston. The first, second and third stories are also available online.

Muhammad Anwar’s journey to Boston started years before he stepped on U.S. soil.

Growing up in Myanmar, he lived in a small village and planted rice alongside his family. But life wasn't easy. Anwar is Rohingya, part of a persecuted Muslim-minority in the Buddhist country.

Anwar was a teenager when his village was brutally attacked. He fled, eventually arriving in a refugee camp in Indonesia. From there, he applied for refugee status in the U.S.

Since the Trump Administration took office in January 2017, the number of refugees entering the U.S. has fallen dramatically, and Muslim refugees have been affected the most.

After years of waiting and hoping, and waiting some more, Anwar became one of the lucky few to be welcomed into the U.S. as a Rohingya refugee in late 2017.

Four Goals

It was a rainy, cold November night when Anwar — at the age of 19 — arrived in Boston and went to his new home, a weathered third-floor apartment in Dorchester.

The next day, Anwar laid out four goals.

First, find a mosque.

He checked that one off his list just a handful of days later. Braving the cold and a crowded Orange Line train, he went to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

Anwar smiled broadly as he prayed alongside 1,000 or so other worshipers, and while the Center’s director asked the community to welcome and help take care of him.

Second, Anwar wanted to learn English.

When he landed in Boston, Anwar could barely say, “My name is Muhammad Anwar.” Within a month, he was taking English classes during the week, studying on the weekend and speaking in full — if halting — sentences.

Four days a week, Anwar would go to a non-descript classroom at his resettlement agency, the International Institute of New England. Sitting alongside people from every part of the world, he learned things like describing articles of clothing, talking about his daily routine, and telling time.

On the weekend, Anwar spent his time doing homework, studying, and reading the one book he’d bought since arriving: the dictionary.

Anwar’s third goal was to find a job — any job.

Before long, Anwar found work as a prep cook at a restaurant in Logan Airport.

“I really like work,” Anwar said, and he considered himself lucky to work in a place where “everyone comes from another country.”

While the people were good, the work was hard. After long days making food for Boston’s travelers, Anwar didn’t always eat himself. “I am hungry,” he said. “I am hungry, and I am so tired.”

Still he took overtime shifts, so he could send money back to his siblings in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Anwar’s fourth and final goal was to bring his family to the U.S. So, just as soon as he could, he applied for a green card, taking him, he hopes, one step closer to reuniting with his relatives.

Anwar shops for groceries in Dorchester.
Anwar shops for groceries in Dorchester.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Finding Fellow Rohingya Refugees

“Life is very hard in United States of America,” Anwar wrote in a WhatsApp message just about one year after arriving in Boston.

Over the course of his first winter, spring, summer and fall in Boston, he moved quickly through his four goals, making a productive life for himself in an unfamiliar place. But as he made progress, new obstacles arose.

When Anwar landed here, he came with a friend: Hussein Mohammad.

They’d met on an overcrowded boat fleeing Myanmar and, together, they’d survived a dramatic mid-ocean rescue. They became roommates in their Indonesian refugee camp and here in Boston.

About two months after arriving in Boston, Mohammad decided to move to Colorado, where there’s a growing community of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

Anwar was left alone in Boston. “Two people from Myanmar stay here, happy,” said Anwar. “I am alone. I am not happy.”

Anwar wanted to move too, but his case worker, Rahmatullah Aka, offered a warning: “If he moves there, his benefits will close here.”

Among other things, the resettlement agency helps refugees like Anwar get benefits like health insurance. Since Anwar needed medical attention for a growth on his chin, Aka recommended Anwar stay in Boston with his healthcare coverage.

And he did stay. He stayed when Mohammad moved to Colorado. And when another Rohingya friend moved to Nashua, N.H. And when still another went to North Carolina.

Anwar pushed on in Boston. He turned 20, worked long hours and learned to navigate bumps in the road.

When he lost his wallet, and his employment card along with it, he knew he had a problem. “Everything is lost," he said.

Anwar couldn’t keep working at Logan. With help from Aka, he applied for a new employment card. But mishaps piled on top of bureaucratic delays and it took months before it arrived in the mail.

When Anwar set out to find another job that didn't require all the IDs necessary to work at the airport, Anwar said he longed for a community — for Rohingya friends who could support him.

“Sometimes I need help,” he said.

“One of the most overlooked, I think, and most critical factors is connecting to other people: social capital,” said Ellen Beattie of the International Rescue Committee.

Resettlement agencies often focus on getting refugees housing, finding them a job and teaching them English. And, Beattie said, building up the refugee’s social network sometimes can take a back seat.

However, having a good social network can help with all the other goals. And, generally, that's the case even if the refugee socializes with people from their own country and ethnicity. “They can help you to make network connections with people outside your community,” Beattie said.

Beattie said there are ways to cultivate social capital. Her organization runs a community garden where refugees work together and interact with the broader community. In Canada, there’s a program where refugees are sponsored by local Canadian families or other groups who help over the course of a year.

Anwar had his own way of feeling a bit less lonely. He got a fish tank and two fish, one red, one black. “I sit here, and I play with them,” Anwar said.

It helped him pass time, but the fish ended up dying. He said he misses them, and he misses his friends who have come to Boston and moved elsewhere.

As Anwar hit his one year mark in America, he said he was contemplating adding another goal to his list: leave Boston.

He said he would like to join Muhammad in Colorado when he gets his green card.

If Anwar is able to bring his siblings to the U.S., he said he wants to bring them to a place where there's a Rohingya community to support them.

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