Bangladesh population

Refugees Push West Ridge’s Growing Asian Population

Emraan Mohamad Yakuv remembers being hit by freezing cold when he arrived from tropical Malaysia nearly eight years ago.

As a child, he was one of thousands of refugees who fled Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Many went to Thailand, then to Malaysia. Some, years later, settled in the United States.

Yakuv, who is Rohingya, remembers being afraid of this new place called Chicago, but also excited about the possibilities and happy that the persecution he and his family had faced would soon be a thing of the past.

Last week, Yakuv was at the West Ridge Rohingya Cultural Center for a job fair, where he was helping as a translator. A smile peering around his face mask, he said he was doing it to help other refugees overcome the same obstacles he faced all those years ago.

Since 2011, an increasing number of Rohingya refugees have settled in West Ridge, one of the reasons the neighborhood’s Asian population has grown steadily over the past 10 years.

These refugees are not attracted by proximity to work and certainly not by winter temperatures. On the contrary, many say it’s the neighborhood’s diverse culture, as well as easy access to social services.

“This neighborhood is such a beautiful place because we have all colors, and we see and respect each other,” Yakuv said. “Everyone is nice, no matter if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, or if you’re Latino, black, or white. West Ridge is beautiful and safe. Why wouldn’t we want to live here?

The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority who have lived for centuries in Buddhist Myanmar but have not been recognized as citizens since 1982. According to the United States for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an organization in Washington-based nonprofit, the Rohingya people are the largest number of stateless people. population in the world. This status means that many Rohingya families have been denied basic human rights.

Myanmar’s citizenship exclusion laws and renewed state violence over the past 10 years have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.

And far, like in West Ridge, where more than 2,000 Rohingyas have settled. It is believed to be the largest Rohingya population in the United States.

Abdul Rashid, left, sits with his wife Jinah Bibi, right, during a job fair at the Rohingya Cultural Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, Wednesday afternoon, January 26, 2022.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

West Ridge, already one of Chicago’s most diverse communities, has seen its Asian population grow by more than 22% in the past decade, according to 2020 census figures. The Asian population grew from 16,184 in 2010 at 19,815 in the most recent count.

Overall, about 77,000 people call West Ridge home. Whites are the largest racial group, with 28,212, though that’s nearly 2,500 less than the white population listed in 2010 (30,706). Asians are the second largest group, while the 15,307 Latino residents are the region’s third largest racial group.

Yakuv said when he arrived in Chicago in 2014 there were only 10 other Rohingya families.

Nasir Zakaria is director of the Rohingya Cultural Center, 2740 W. Devon Ave., which opened in 2016. He estimates they now serve about 300 families and are the strongest Rohingya social service group in the country.

“We noticed that every community had a type of organization, and because we were a new cultural group in Chicago, we didn’t have space,” Zakaria said. “We weren’t allowed to have an education in our country, so many people can’t read. We therefore offer courses to help them learn English and [also provide] other types of assistance.

Zakaria said word of mouth among Rohingya refugees has made Chicago a favorite destination for many. Families tell each other of the beauty of the town and, more importantly, that the Rohingya have fostered a vibrant community on the north side.

Nasir Zakaria, <a class=executive director of the Rohingya Cultural Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, speaks with attendees of a job fair at the center, Wednesday afternoon, January 26, 2022. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times” data-upload-width=”4074″ src=”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/hE975Ctwr5TFYHQbpwVJxNErpoQ=/0x0:4074×2716/1200×0/filters:focal(0x0:4074×2716):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/23203034/merlin_103433964.jpg”/>

Nasir Zakaria, executive director of the Rohingya Cultural Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, speaks with attendees of a job fair at the center, Wednesday afternoon, January 26, 2022.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Another member of this community is Basha Ahmed, who came to Chicago from Malaysia in 2012 when he was just 12 and has lived in the same apartment in West Ridge ever since.

“We didn’t have the Internet, we had nothing to learn about ourselves. But the Chicago Public Library was so close that I spent all my time there,” Ahmed said. “It helped me learn more about computers and learn things that I could take back to my family.”

“It’s a big reason why I love this community,” he said.

Now 22, Ahmed spends most of his time setting up computers for residents and making sure everyone has internet access. He earned an associate’s degree and has several certifications to work in IT, which he hopes to do after he graduates.

“If you look at our history, a lot of our older people are uneducated and never had the chance to learn technology,” Ahmed said. “It’s my role, to help and to give back by helping to educate people.”

Jims Porter, communications and advocacy manager for RefugeeOne, said another factor making West Ridge a destination for Asian immigrants is affordability.

“If you look at the past 15 years, the trend of immigrants moving to Chicago tended to be in Buena Park and the Uptown area. But rising rents have made it harder to live there. [while] in West Ridge it’s more affordable and it has so many social services.

RefugeeOne, which helps provide housing and employment assistance to refugees, was located in Uptown for more than three decades but moved to West Ridge after being evicted by developers.

Uptown’s Asian population fell nearly 4% from 6,414 in 2010 to 6,182 in 2020, according to 2020 census figures.

Porter thinks West Ridge’s Asian population will only continue to grow. Now, he said, recent Afghan refugees have started settling in the neighborhood.

“West Ridge is a very diverse and culturally rich neighborhood that is home to many immigrant and refugee families,” Porter said. “And it will probably be for a long time.”

West Devon Avenue in West Ridge can be seen in this photo, Friday afternoon, January 28, 2022. |  Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

West Devon Avenue in West Ridge can be seen in this photo, Friday afternoon, January 28, 2022.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times