The Calling sculpture in downtown Milwaukee. [Image: Dori / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

Rohingya Refugees Built a Community in Milwaukee


Milwaukee, Wisconsin is home to one of the largest populations of Rohingya refugees in the United States. Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, has been repressed by the Buddhist majority for decades. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken officially labeled the atrocities committed by Myanmar's military junta against Rohingya as genocide in March 2022. Repression, murder, and other abuses of the Rohingya intensified in 2017 when the military cracked down on Rohingya Muslims, leading many to flee the country and resettling in places such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Rohingya community in Milwaukee is estimated at 2,300 to 4,000 as of June 2021, with most of those refugees having arrived between 2011 and 2017.

Since the first wave of Rohingya refugees, the community in Milwaukee has grown. The Burmese Rohingya Community of Wisconsin, based in Milwaukee, serves resettled refugees in the area offering resources from food programs to citizenship classes to mental wellness and health workshops. The organization also hosts discussions on Rohingya resettlement and advocates for justice against the atrocities committed in Myanmar. The organization recently bought a church building in Clarke Square in Milwaukee's south side in March 2021 to convert into a community center for Rohingya refugees. The center serves to facilitate English language lessons, technology support, US immigration system assistance, housing, childcare, and other services. Groups like the Rohingya American Society (formerly the Burmese Rohingya American Friendship Association) also operate out of Milwaukee. The organization's mission is to work with the US Government, particularly Congress and the Department of State, to facilitate legislation pertaining to Burmese Rohingya policy issues. The Rohingya American Society shares articles that highlight the current activity of Rohingya refugees and the situation in Myanmar. The organization also has a collection of articles that underscore Rohingya history and genocidal attacks against them.

While Rohingya-specific groups provide education and services, other organizations in Milwaukee have adapted to better accommodate the Rohingya community, such as Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center. This healthcare network, which has been servicing Milwaukee since 1984, keeps a full-time medical interpreter for the Rohingya and Burmese communities to better aid communication between medical staff and patients. Dr. Abdul Hamid has worked at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center as a medical interpreter since 2016 communicating from Rohingya, Burmese, and Malay to English and vice versa.

Southeast Asian Americans account for more than half of the approximately 190,000 AAPI population in Wisconsin. Wisconsin's Burmese population is the fifth largest behind Hmong, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Laotian communities. However, Wisconsin's Burmese population may increase as the conflict in Myanmar continues to intensify. The ruling Tatmadaw's armed forces doubled down on arrests in Myanmar's Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. Many Rohingya have begun to face further scrutiny at various travel checkpoints leading to seemingly unprompted arrests. As pressure grows within the Rakhine State, Wisconsin may see even more Rohingya flee to Milwaukee where the Rohingya community has built itself a space in a Midwestern metropolis.

Mimi MacKilligan is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a first-year graduate student at the George Washington University studying International Affairs with a double concentration in International Security Studies and Asia.

Ryan Ahn Roden is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at American University's School of International Service.