Meeting Rohingya Refugees in America: My Personal Experience

By Quentin Choy

July 21, 2021

By now, many of you reading likely know about the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

If not, don’t worry!

The Rohingya people are an ethnic and religious minority living in Myanmar. They face violent persecution and displacement by both democratic and military governments. In this post, I’ll share my personal experiences in meeting Rohingya refugees living in the United States.

A protest in South Africa to save the Rohingya.

An estimated 8,000 Rohingya refugees settled in the US since 2005, with the largest population living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Rohingya people have faced some of the most difficult perils in terms of migration.

Within Myanmar, the Rohingya are classified as internally displaced persons (IDP). UNHCR defines IDPs as people who “stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement.”

Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.

Internally displaced persons differ from refugees because they do not cross borders to reach safety. Rather they attempt to find safety within their country from the government itself.

The Rohingya are denied health care and other rights. The Burmese government denies them citizenship, making them a stateless people. Due to them not having citizenship, they are unable to obtain passports and leave Myanmar.

Daniel’s Story: Escape from Myanmar

Two years ago, I met a Rohingya refugee named Daniel. He lives in Colorado and has lived there for a few months.

He and a local organization hosted an event called “A Walk in Their Shoes: Burma.” The goal of the event was to inform the community about the struggles Rohingya people faced in Myanmar as well as their journey to the United States.

In 2018, when I met Daniel, Myanmar was led by Aung San Suu Kyi. She has since been arrested following the military coup in February, which removed her as the nation’s democratically-elected leader.

Aung San Suu Kyi.

Troubles escalated for Daniel when he was arrested by Burmese Police. Burmese police officers have been known to arrest and torture people without good reason including Daniel. Upon Daniel’s arrest and subsequent torture, his father asked friends and family to donate money in order to pay his bail.

He knew that arrests like this were common in Myanmar, and that now would be a good time to flee the country to avoid further persecution.

Daniel and I at an event about the Rohingya experience in Myanmar.

Daniel Flees to Bangladesh

Daniel fled Myanmar and headed to Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingya choose to seek refuge in Bangladesh due to its proximity to Myanmar.

Large cities like Dhaka also allow Rohingya to potentially travel by sea to other countries that can protect them such as Malaysia or the United States.

Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Upon arrival at the Bangladeshi border, border guards confronted Daniel. He spoke to them about the atrocities happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar, but they were indifferent.

They refused to let Rohingya in, but since Daniel was a former professional soccer player and was quite wealthy, he paid the guards 100,000 Burmese kyats in order to let him through.

Many Rohingya refugees flee from Myanmar (orange) to Bangladesh (green) to reach safety.

With the Bangladeshi border being strictly fortified by military forces, many Rohingya leave Myanmar through the Indian Ocean. They either establish arrangements with smugglers or with other ships that allow them on board.

Daniel paid the captain of a fishing ship to let him aboard his 256-man ship, eventually taking him across a stormy sea on an 8 day-long trip from Bangladesh to Malaysia.

Bangladeshi border guards.

Not all Rohingya have been as lucky as Daniel, however, in their maritime voyages. In 2017, 46 Rohingya died crossing the Naf River trying to reach Bangladesh by boat.

This photo gallery from Reuters shows images of the crossing and the desperation of the Rohingya refugees. Many of the images will break your heart. See the gallery here.

Many Rohingya fail to reach safety in other countries, and few can afford to bribe guards or pay for travel like Daniel could. It is especially difficult to successfully reach a country like the United States.

A fishing boat on the Naf River.

Daniel in America

While Daniel safely lives in Colorado, he hopes that his family will be able to eventually join him. Despite his safety, he fears for the safety of those he left behind.

The Rohingya find themselves in an even more dire situation now that the military have taken control of Myanmar.

Through a local center meant to help refugees and immigrants adjust to American life, Daniel met several other Rohingya men who now live in America.

Daniel, myself, and other Rohingya refugees. One of them had an important phone call!

They performed traditional Rohingya music at a festival meant to teach the community about other cultures from around the world.

Daniel and other Rohingya men performing traditional songs.

The Rohingya in Bangladesh

In December 2020, Bangladeshi authorities abandoned hundreds of Rohingya refugees on an isolated, 15 square mile island. They were bound to Malaysia but were instead dumped like garbage onto the island known as Bhasan Char.

A fire in Rohingya camps destroyed thousands of shelters resulting in over 60,000 Rohingya being made homeless.


While some Rohingya have successfully escaped Myanmar to places like Bangladesh, Malaysia, or the United States, the situation is still dire for them.

The coronavirus pandemic, Rohingya camp fire, abandonment on Bhasan Char island, and the military coup have all worsened the situation for their people.

I’m glad that I was able to learn about these experiences from someone firsthand. While statistics and headlines are enough to grab an empathetic heart, true firsthand accounts stick with you for far longer. I thank Daniel for sharing his story with my community, and I hope you can remember his story when thinking about Myanmar and his people.



Thanks again to Quintin Choi for writing an article for my blog.

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