Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the fourth year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
I work as a University Chaplain for New York University and Executive Director of its Islamic Center. Throughout the month of Ramadan, we host iftar dinners for people to break their fasts every week night that are open to the community. We usually get between 200 and 300 people on average. A couple of hours before iftar time, a team of volunteers helps ensure that everything runs smoothly from start to finish. They pour water into cups, cut fresh fruits and vegetables, pass out dates, serve food to all the guests, and at times even forgo meals for themselves so that people will have more to eat. They are an amazing group that I am so grateful for.
One of our regular volunteers this year is a woman named Rahmat. She started coming to the IC this year and early on had asked if her mother could help volunteer as well. Her mother doesn't speak English and Rahmat was concerned this might be problem, but we assured her it would be fine.
The other day prior to iftar, I was told that Rahmat wanted to speak with me and she gave me the unfortunate news that her father had passed away unexpectedly. His name was Mohammed Amin and she wanted to know if I could say a special prayer for him and ask the community to pray for him as well. She said she was trying so hard to bring him to live with her and first wanted to bring her mother given the situation there. I inquired, "Where?" She replied through tears, "Burma."
The Rohingya, Ethnic Burmese Muslims, are one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world today. Riots and mob violence carried out by the Buddhist majority have been a regular occurrence, homes and stores looted and destroyed, lives lost, and much suffering sustained. Rahmat discussed some of what she had seen and her only family and friends experienced in Burma. She brought up the Qur'an and how many Muslim communities around the world will bring a haafiz, someone who has memorized the Qur'an in its entirety, to lead them in prayer each night in hopes of completing a reading of the entire scripture before the month's end. She said in her local community, there were 14 people who had memorized the Qur'an and 12 of them had been burned alive. The pain and persecution in her voice was overshadowed only by a hopelessness of being forgotten. Her people's conflict is not really paid attention to on a global stage, despite the severity and longevity of it.
I wonder at times why we are more prone to being informed of certain conflicts rather than all conflicts. On a governmental level, the common conclusion would be that intervention only takes place where our own interests are served. I would agree with that and pray that the world gives birth to leaders whose primary concern is the welfare of people rather than simply those of the elite. But my wonder here is more so around an absence of voices and understanding of people in general. Aside from the fact that most of us probably don't know where Burma is on a map, how come it doesn't find a place in our hearts? The question is not meant to inculcate guilt, but reflection. Do we just not know or is that we don't care to know?
Nicholas Kristof gives a look into what he calls "21st Century Concentration Camps" in a video op-ed for the NY Times in which he shows the harsh conditions Muslims in Burma are forced to live in by the government. "These people are completely shut off from the entire world." When he visits a state spokesman to speak about what he has seen, he is told, "The first thing I want to say is when you are in our state, don't use the word Rohingya. There is no such thing as the Rohingya Ethnicity in our country."
There are actually more than 800,000 Rohingya in his country and of them, close to 149,000 have become internally displaced in their home country since 2012. For those who have never experienced "internal-displacement" it's important to really understand was it means. IDP populations are essentially evicted from their homes by force in mass number. Cities within their own country will not welcome them in and they are forced to live in unsettled lands on their own. I have personally visited internally displaced populations in Sri Lanka made up of Muslims that were evicted from their homes on two separate occasions by the Tamil Tigers while they were in power. These people, similar to the Rohingya, are without infrastructure of any kind. They have little to no food, virtually no medicine that resulted in children dying of illnesses that could easily be cured with simple vaccinations, no sewage systems, no places for real education, and much more.
Rahmat's request of me was to pray for her father, Mohammed Amin, and for her people, the Rohingya. Whatever walk of life you come from, please do keep them in your thoughts and prayers. For those who are fasting, encourage your community leaders, imams, khateebs and others to pray for the Rohingya with the community at large, especially in the blessed nights of Ramadan, and try to contribute to them whatever you are able to.