A refugee finds a home, a country and a future.
“I really wanted to work at Catholic Charities,“ says Anisu. ““I like helping [new arrivals] get acquainted with everything here in America.”
Anisu Yunus is a petit 20-year-old with a large ambition to become a physician’s assistant. She says her mother was a nurse and wanted to go to medical school, but because of having to flee Burma, she was not able to fulfill that dream -- which is why Anisu wants to become a PA.
While she pursues her degree at Purdue – Fort Wayne, she works part-time at Catholic Charities as a translator (she speaks five languages: Rohingya, Burmese, Malay, Hindi and English) and administrative assistant, helping new arrivals from her native Burma and around the world.
Anisu’s journey to the United States began at age 5 when, along with her mother, father and two sisters, she traveled by boat to Malaysia where there are nearly 100,000 other Rohingya refugees. Though Malaysia allows them to register with the U.N.'s refugee agency, the country provides them little aid and does not permit them to work, all the while charging them for health services.
The Rohingya are a much-persecuted ethnic minority from Burma (aka Myanmar). For the past 50 years, they have faced severe persecution from the ruling military junta, which declared arbitrarily that they are not citizens. This came even though the group had lived in Burma for centuries and enjoyed citizenship for nearly 20 years after the British left in 1947.
Since then, over 800,000 Rohingya effectively became refugees in their own country. They were scapegoated as outsiders, denied education, and prevented from voting and owning property. They were also excluded from government employment and many have been killed, solely because of their ethnicity.
Life was not much better for Anisu and her family in Malaysia. Given their refugee status, her father could not hold a job and Rohingya children were only permitted to go to school through grade six.
“The teachers were very strict,” she says. “I was struck with a cane if I gave a wrong answer. I learned to keep my mouth shut.”
Eventually, though, the UN opened a school there and she was permitted to continue her education. She was introduced to the Latin alphabet for the first time. Centuries prior, English and Dutch colonists adapted the European alphabet to create a more familiar written form of the Malay language.
“The Malay alphabet made the transition to English a little easier in school, but it was very different from American English,” she says.
Because of these difficult conditions, Anisu’s family applied for refugee status with the US State Department. The process took many years because of detailed background checks and health screenings. Once they were cleared, they were given legal permanent residence, issued green cards and flown to Fort Wayne, which is well-suited to accommodate their cultural adjustment because of the many Burmese in the area.
Once here, Anisu enrolled as a freshman at New Haven High School. For the soft-spoken 15-year-old, it was a big culture shock. Fortunately, she made a friend with another Rohingya girl, a junior who had been here a few years and was more fluent in English. Thanks to loyal friends, good teachers and hard work, Anisu learned the language and graduated with honors.
“Everyone was very friendly and helpful,” she says. “My teachers were very kind to me, giving me extra help with biology, chemistry and math. Even today, they still help me with my courses at Purdue.”
In this country just four years, Anisu acts as a part-time translator and administrative assistant at Catholic Charities, helping new arrivals from Burma.
“I greet new arrivals at the airport and take them to the many appointments they must complete,” she says.
With only 90 days to get settled, there is much to do for new arrivals. Anisu translates correspondence and acts as an interpreter at meetings. She also provides assistance with government documents and job applications. Securing employment is critical because, by day 91, they are expected to pay their own expenses and even reimburse the government for the cost of the airfare to get here.
Someday Anisu would like to visit Malaysia again to spend time with friends and relatives. But this time she wants to return as an American citizen.
“I look forward to becoming a citizen,” she says. “I will finally have a country and a future.”