Although he hasn't seen his home country in more than a decade, modern technology has made it easy for Abdul Jabbar Amanullah to stay in regular contact with his family in Myanmar's remote Rakhine state.
Using email and social media to interact with loved ones has made his life as a refugee now living in Chicago a little easier, even if the latest news coming from his village has been growing increasingly unsettling.
“They are telling me the situation is [becoming even] worse because the military has them surrounded,” he told VOA.
For all that the technology has given him, however, it also has fueled his greatest fears. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya have been fleeing attacks in Rakhine in recent weeks. The last contact Amanullah had with family in his village is a blurry, 11-second video of towering flames… footage he says shows his village burning to the ground after Myanmar military forces came through.
“We don’t know who set fires,” Amanullah explained, though he suspects it was the military or groups aligned with them.
It's difficult for him to verify what’s going on in Myanmar because officials restrict access for journalists and aid workers, but hundreds of thousands of ethnic Muslim Rohingya have already fled for neighboring Bangladesh, pushed out of their homes in what the United Nations calls “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the Myanmar military.
WATCH: Rohingya Refugees Push U.S. Lawmakers to Act
Myanmar rejects claims
Myanmar officials reject those claims. They blame arsonists for the burning villages, and say the problems are being exaggerated.
As the crisis, and blame, continue to unfold, many Rohingya in the United States, particularly in Chicago — which is home to the second largest Rohingya community in the nation — frantically await word from friends and family still in the conflict zone. They search for any hint of news slowly trickling out of the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“The story is very similar from everybody,” said Dr. Imran Akbar. “The military is coming in, they are torching the villages, they are shooting the men.There’s been countless reports of women being kidnapped, anywhere from 12 years old to older, being kidnapped and carried away and raped. They are not allowed to take anything with them, and the villagers are running for the hills.”
Akbar recently returned to Chicago after visiting several camps in Bangladesh, and shared his first-hand observations with Amanullah and others who gathered at the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago.
“The lines are miles long waiting for food distribution,” he explained to VOA. “It rains there every day. With that there is constant mud and sludge and a lot of times impassible conditions for vehicles. Couple that with not having proper sanitation and not having adequate latrines and so forth, it creates the perfect environment for cholera and other infectious diseases.”
Durbin meets with Rohingya in Chicago
Armed with pictures and first-hand video accounts, Akbar is taking their case directly to the U.S. government through Senator Dick Durbin, who listened to Akbar’s observations, as well as concerns from other Rohingya who gathered to make a direct appeal for U.S. action in their home country.
“What we know is this, there is an ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar today,” Durbin told VOA in an exclusive interview after his meeting with Rohingya community members in Chicago.
Durbin wants to immediately terminate military-to-military contact between the United States and Myanmar, something Congress, and the president, currently is evaluating.
“They should allow U.N. observers in immediately to see all of the territory in Myanmar currently occupied by the Rohingya people,” said Durbin. “There is no excuse for that. Until they allow that to happen, there is no reason the United States should send them aid.”
Myanmar ambassador meeting
Durbin believes finding a way to end the crisis has bipartisan support in Congress, and he says he plans to address the issue himself directly with the Myanmar government.
“My task is to really reach out directly to the Myanmar ambassador in Washington and demand that he come and meet with a group of senators who share my concerns, both Democrats and Republicans, about the ethnic cleansing taking place in his country,” said Durbin.
“Secondly, to join with Senator (John) McCain and others on both sides of the aisle to say the United States will not be complicit in this ethnic cleansing. We are going to cut off assistance to Myanmar if they refuse to allow U.N. observers, and if they continue to participate in this ethnic cleansing.”
Need ‘immediate action’
As Abdul Jabbar Amanullah seeks further news, or videos, from those in his home village, he hopes that whatever action the U.S. government takes isn't too late to help his family.
“The military is still doing the same thing they did before, setting the fires, killing the Rohingyas, so our first target is to stop this kind of stuff,” he said. “So that is my hope to Senator Durbin — he can raise his voice and tell Congress and our president to take immediate action with the Burmese government.”
Action he hopes that ultimately will lead to the end of a still unfolding humanitarian crisis, which already has forced more than half a million people from their homes.