Georgetown welcomed journalist and human rights activist Imran Mohammad Fazal Hoque for a November 6 conversation about stateless diaspora communities, education, and religion as a sustaining force for refugees. Moderated by Sudipta Roy, a Berkley Center research fellow, and in conversation with Dina Siddiqi, an associate professor at New York University, the discussion focused on Hoque’s experience as a stateless Rohingya refugee and the challenges facing the Rohingya diaspora around the world, with a specific focus on the United States.
In introducing the event, Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff underscored the importance of including refugee voices in the conversation.
“We don’t get a sufficient opportunity to really hear from refugees themselves, to understand their realities, the challenges they face in all its complexity. Personal testimony and superb reporting are foundational if we are to make any progress on this issue in the United States and around the world.”
This event was part of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which supports journalism that investigates or illuminates the religious dimension of an international issue, bringing to light what is often overlooked, untold, or misunderstood.
“Why do I write?”
Growing up in Myanmar as a stateless refugee, Hoque faced constant persecution and oppression at the hands of the government. Yet, he managed to overcome these structural barriers and become a journalist, writer, and human rights activist in the United States. This path was not an easy one.
After leaving Myanmar, Hoque faced a long and dangerous journey that culminated in five years spent in offshore detention in Australia. During this time, Hoque was exposed to refugees from over 30 countries, many of whom were extremely vocal about their rights, a concept that Hoque had never been introduced to.
In detention in Australia, Hoque taught himself English and began writing. Writing allowed him to feel as if he was somewhere else, making five years feel like five days, and enabled him to communicate with the rest of the world.
“I always ask myself, ‘Why do I write? What is the purpose of writing?’ I write because writing allowed me to let the world know that Rohingya people exist.”
Even now Hoque writes to let Americans know that Rohingya people live here, that they exist.
As a 2021 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow, Hoque won the national Mark of Excellence Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work embodying the themes of isolation, refugees, statelessness, generational trauma, and U.S. refugee policy.
Experience but No Education
Growing up in Myanmar, Hoque and his fellow Rohingyas were barred by the government from receiving education, kept purposefully illiterate, and prohibited from even writing down their own language. These factors are what motivated Hoque to educate himself and go on to advocate for the education of Rohingya in the diaspora.
The fact that a large percentage of Rohingya in the United States are illiterate demonstrates how the persecution they faced follows them out of Myanmar. Without the ability to read and write, Rohingya in the United States will never be able to become citizens and obtain a passport.
Hoque argued that education is essential for Rohingya to thrive in the diaspora, but even more than that it is the only way for them to know their rights.
“I keep talking about education because it’s very important. Once I have the education, I know my rights, I will speak up. If I don’t have the education I will never speak up because I don’t know my rights.”
The way forward in preserving the Rohingya culture, Hoque suggested, is through educating the youth and getting them to universities, thereby avoiding the tragedy of a lost generation.
Education but No Experience
While Hoque saw the United States as a safe haven in which he could start fresh, upon his arrival he quickly learned that many barriers still stood in his way.
Given the fact that many Rohingya arrive in the United States with no education or work experience, policies that require refugees to become self-sufficient within three months of arrival immediately disadvantage them.
Through his writing, Hoque hopes to make a difference and change these policies.
“The people who are making policies, they have their education, but they don’t have the experience of being a refugee or an asylum seeker. Maybe, what they have to do is have refugees at the table, listen to them.”
Allowing refugees to help shape policy, Hoque argued, can lead to actual change as they are the only ones who truly know their communities, but this process must start with education.
This mindset is what motivated Hoque and a group of Rohingya to visit the U.S. Congress, hoping to share their story and initiate change. What Hoque came away with was not hope that those in power would help, but rather the realization that the Rohingya must help themselves and go to Congress every month to demand change lest their plight be forgotten.
“They Lost Everything but Their Faith”
When asked about the role that religion plays in the journeys and lives of Rohingya refugees, Hoque emphasized the importance of faith for coping with trauma in the face of persecution.
“With our faith we get the strength that we need to survive on a daily basis. A lot of our people are very religious and when they face hardship, they talk with their gods, and they hope that things will be different someday, and it helps.”
Finding solace in their faith, Hoque explained, helps them to survive and move forward.
Rohingya in the diaspora also turn to their communities, helping each other in times of hardship. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic Rohingya shared health information with each other through voice memos in WhatsApp groups. Community centers can also help Rohingya overcome language and literacy barriers to engage key services, such as making appointments with their caseworkers.
Hoque reiterated that when given the proper resources to overcome these barriers and find jobs, refugees have great potential to benefit the United States through their work and taxes. “Educating the community will allow you to make more money to support more people,” he said.
Through all of Hoque’s writing and advocacy, it is clear that Siddiqi’s statement rings true:
“He is a testament to the power of what words can do.”