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Rohingya Refugees in a Segregated Geography: A Case Study of Milwaukee

By Mania Taher

In Fall last year, I was volunteering at a homework program for young people from refugee families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During my first visit there, I was surprised to find out that the majority of the kids attending there were children of Rohingya refugee families from Myanmar. I was a newcomer Ph.D. student in Architecture program of UW-Milwaukee, studying the inter-relationship of cultural landscape and built environment; fresh off boat in the U.S. from Bangladesh. Before I was leaving my home country, major socio-political issues were on the rise regarding the millions of Rohingya refugees entering through the south-east borderlands of Bangladesh. In the month of August last year, the whole world came to know that the ethnic Muslim minority race in Myanmar named ‘Rohingya’, faced a violent process of eviction from their country as part of Myanmar government’s ethnic cleansing agenda. During August 2017, when the government’s ethnic cleansing operation reached its extreme, millions of Rohingya people escaped to the refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand. Visiting the Rohingyas here in Milwaukee raised these questions to me: How did these people come here, and how are they managing to survive? How are they learning to navigate around Milwaukee’s urban landscape?


Map: Transnational Rohingya Mobility Around the World (Source: WRAPSNET and Author)

The Rohingya population who made it possible to arrive in the United States came a long way in their lives. They escaped from Myanmar to Malaysia and Thailand, lived there for several years as refugees and came to the U.S. Once they arrived here under refugee status, they were majorly re-located in the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago by the U.S. State government. Both Malaysia and Thailand are part of the UN constitution system, thereby the Rohingyas who took shelter there could apply to come to live in the U.S. as refugees. Once their dream was fulfilled and arrived in the US, they met challenges of integrating into the American socio-cultural values and hardship of daily living in a foreign land. The Rohingya people used to live a simple agrarian life in the rural regions of Rakhine state in Myanmar. This population could not have access to a proper education system while living in the refugee camps and in Myanmar for years. Learning English, finding jobs and raising the families in a safe and comfortable environment are difficult but not impossible hurdles for them to overcome in the US. My study finds that Rohingya community in Milwaukee has been living below the poverty level as the majority of the people don’t have the proper education to find well-paying jobs. Majority of these Rohingya men have been working at low-paying jobs in the factories and service sectors while their women are living at home to take care of the family members. It seems that they are slowly reaching the goal to their search of new homes in this new cultural landscape at the other side of the world from their place of origin, which unfortunately, does not seem to be a favorable place for refugees right now.

In Milwaukee, Rohingyas are not the only Muslim refugee community striving for acceptance. At present, Milwaukee is home for refugees from Syria, Palestine, Ethiopia, Combodia, Myanmar and many other politically-torn countries. Majority of these Muslim refugees have formed their community neighborhoods around the Islamic Society of Milwaukee (ISM) mosque. ISM mosque is a place for them to receive help and support, free of cost as a Muslim community: health clinic, legal support, religious classes, cultural programs, space rentals, etc. The mosque is also the kind of “third place” (places for social participation outside home and workplace) for the Rohingyas in general where they also get to know other Muslim people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. For many of them, the mosque provides a spatial connection that roots them to their memories in the places where they were born. Rohingya-American Society (RAS) in Milwaukee also formed a small-scale mosque space where they occasionally perform some of the Rohingya community events and meetings. But these mosques are third places strictly constricted by gender, as they are mostly accessed by the Rohingya male population.

There are also other non-profit grassroots and state-funded organizations that are reaching out to co-operate with these communities. I found out that there are mainly three neighborhood house organizations in urban Milwaukee that are working towards facilitating the refugee communities with skills to survive and activities to flourish as a community. One of these organizations is the Neighborhood House of Milwaukee which was established in 1945 and played an active role in the Civil Rights Movement of Milwaukee. Their sister organization, International Language Center (ILC) Milwaukee is located at around 15 minute’s driving distance from these refugee neighborhoods. The organization has been conducting English classes for different skill levels, citizenship classes, computer courses, organizing religious festivities and all sorts of co-operation to these refugee people. State-supported Refugee Resettlement Program by these neighborhood houses focus to respect their ethnic identities instead of instilling the process of Americanization, as the earlier form of social philanthropic organization for immigrants, settlement houses did. They strive to culturally educate these refugee people while encouraging to keep their own ethnic identity. Cynthia Zarazua, International Learning Center Manager of the Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, explains this process of assimilation of refugee communities:

The accepted refugees, once their relocation state is set and they arrive at a US airport, they are welcomed by the refugee resettlement agency people working in that city. These agencies settle them to housing, register their kids to school, inform them about employment opportunities, organize their required medical exams. Moreover, these agencies might also organize a week-long cultural training workshop, where they provide very basic training for these people’s adaptation to the new place. But still, these people require a lot of help to get assimilated.

Majority of these population never had the chance to go to schools or receive professional degrees. Language is a major barrier for these people to get hired in the job places. Thereby, they are introduced to this sister organization of NH MKE – International Language Center (ILC) by their resettlement agencies. We are the only English education organization for the refugee communities in Milwaukee. Two of our major donor organizations at this point are Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Foodshare Employment and Training (FSET).

In spite of the recent low refugee resettlement rate, we are currently teaching English courses at different levels to around 500 refugees as our students. These people who are in need of basic knowledge of English education, we find them to be very diligent students, they usually don’t miss classes. A diligent student might not take longer than one year to speak and read an advanced level of English.

Many of our students often come here for help for other purposes or to only meet us even if they are finished with their courses. We treat our students based on their unique ethnic identity, and our staffs often go out of their ways to help these people as extended family members. We give them employment advice, fill out their forms if needed, recently we also handled an unfortunate bankruptcy case by one of our students.” (Interviewed on 20 March, 2018)

Cynthia’s account narrating ILC’s role in the process of resettlement and assimilation stressed upon the importance of treating the refugee people with respect to their unique ethnic identity and helping these people almost as extended family members. The idea of neighborhood houses stemmed from the concept of settlement houses established back in the early 20th century, and the objectives of both these kinds of social institutions were to create a place for access to resources and community development for the poor immigrants and migrants in the city. When immigrants and migrants arrive at a new place, they are usually treated with suspicion and aversion as for being foreign ‘bodies’ in the everyday landscape. Historically for the U.S. cities, settlement houses and neighborhood houses provided educational, cultural, health and recreational activities for these people and acted as the ‘community living room’ through their inclusive space-making. I would claim these organizational spaces as ‘social architecture’ because they share histories of cultivating social spaces in order to optimize human interactions and to socially integrate people into the larger cultural landscape.

Young Rohingya girls at neighborhood house art event, and Rohingya males inside a grocery store (Source: Author)

“Have you been to Lake Michigan?” In my conversation with nearly forty Rohingya refugees in Milwaukee, US, all but three admitted to never having seen Lake Michigan, though their community is only five miles away from the lake. One unofficial source from the local Rohingya community states that there are around 7000 Rohingyas living in Milwaukee. Rohingya refugees in Milwaukee have barely ventured beyond the small neighborhood blocks where their apartments, mosque, schools, grocery stores, and community outreach centers (neighborhood houses and language centers) are located. The Rohingya people’s freedom for a new living in here is still bounded by their imposed spatial constrictions. Their ethnic identity as being a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar shapes their present existence in the American cultural landscape till the present. On the other hand, Milwaukee is a city known for its containment of different ethnicities in separated neighborhoods which result in a segregated urban landscape. My discussion of spatial constriction within Milwaukee also suggests that the city’s public bus transportation also plays a role by the city as part of the purposeful social engineering to retaining the city’s segregated character. The lack of interconnected public transportation system helps to maintain the segregation among these neighborhoods. The elevated expressways are also critiqued very often to be designed to connect the white suburban areas to the downtown district area. In this way, the city’s physical landscape seems to be strongly divided between white, black and Latino-Asian populated neighborhoods which also gets reflected to its racial dot map (fig. 4). In such a segregated landscape, these Rohingya people, as newcomers in the city, prefer to constrain their navigation limits within an invisible boundary of Southside Milwaukee where they consider the two mosques as the locus points of their neighborhoods. Their ethnic enterprises (grocery store, clothing shop, etc.) are also growing within these invisibly segregated neighborhoods which are close to their navigation points in between their homes and their workplaces. My observation finds out that the Rohingya grocery stores (currently six in numbers in and around their neighborhoods) are the informal meeting places among the Rohingya males where they visit frequently. Inside these grocery stores, they meet others from their neighborhoods to have a chit-chat about daily living, along with buying the daily necessities for home.

Within this constricted spatial boundary for Rohingyas in Milwaukee, their women’s navigation of the urban landscape is even more limited. After talking to them, I found out that majority of Rohingya women came to Milwaukee as married with kids, and sole responsibilities of their household activities and raising the children are upon them. Outside their homes, these women are majorly dependent on their men in the families to navigate, as very few of them can drive and have own vehicles. The creation of gendered territory for Rohingya women within this spatial boundary gets reflected from their traditionally positioned roles as caregiver for the home territory, which also gets amplified by their lack of independent access to public places. I met a number of Rohingya women in a bi-weekly women wellness event organized by a local community clinic. In such events, the women get the chance to meet other women from their communities and enjoy a good time together by attending Zumba (physical exercise through music and dance moves) and consultation sessions. One of the event’s organizers, Kai Mishlove, also agrees to the same point by saying that when Muslim refugee women first arrive with their family units in the U.S. cities like Milwaukee, a lot of times the husbands get jobs first, thereby the women stay at home to take care of their children. Then, she adds, the objective of their arranged events is to get these women out of their home boundaries by making them attend to these programs, and increase opportunities for socialization with other women. The Rohingya women in Milwaukee are learning new ways of assimilation to the cultural landscape by attending these event places where they are also meeting each other to support.

I will sum up this whole discussion about Rohingyas in Milwaukee by stating that Rohingya social confinement within their community and their limited navigation pattern within the city reflect two structuring processes. One of these relates to Rohingya ideas about gender that restrict women’s movement, especially to the home, while men navigate the spaces of their public community; and the other relates to the pattern of Milwaukee’s urban landscape that promotes socio-physical segregation along racial and ethnic lines. In midst of these difficulties, the Rohingyas are advancing themselves in this Midwest urban landscape through their motivations to survive and flourish. They have already formed a strong sense of communal identity in Southside Milwaukee, and the community is growing very fast. A number of state-supported and grassroots social organizations are also accommodating them to have access to resources required for a daily living in the US, but at the same time, the segregated urban landscape comes as a major factor in keeping them to be enclaved inside their neighborhoods.

(This piece of literature is a narration of my general interaction and experiences with refugees in Milwaukee and Rohingya refugees. I am sincerely grateful to a number of people during this study, specifically mentioning Cynthia Zarazua, ILC Manager, Neighborhood House of Milwaukee and, Kai Gardner-Mishlove, volunteer and organizer for refugee women wellness event in WPCC.)

Mania Taher is currently a Ph.D. Scholar in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA. Her research concentration area is Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures (BLC), an academic research program that deals with the issues of built environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Dhaka, Bangladesh and, a Masters of Urban Design degree from Columbia University, New York, USA. Mania served as Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American International University-Bangladesh (AIUB) for more than seven years. Her research interest broadly includes the study of cultural landscape in the everyday urban contexts of immigrant and migrant communities, and South-Asian Urbanism. She can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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