Imagine trying to travel from La Grande to Pendleton but first needing express permission from the government — which does not accept you as a citizen. Imagine fleeing from your home country because a group of religious extremists is driving out or slaughtering people like you. Imagine then living in a refugee camp in a foreign land that has limited resources, with only four feet of space per 10 people.
Two former Eastern Oregon University students hope these images will help Northeast Oregonians sympathize with the realities Rohingya refugees face on the other side of the world.
“Rohingya are considered the most persecuted people in the world,” said Reza Uddin, who attended Eastern in the 1990s.
He said he was shocked that Buddhist monks, who are often associated with peace and meditation, could be persecuting and slaughtering people of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim community.
“Every religion has extremists who cause suffering in others,” Uddin said. “(Radical) Buddhists are making Rohingya suffer.”
Uddin, who is Rohingya himself, was born in the Rakhine state of Burma (now known as Myanmar). He left Burma in 1992 and later attended Eastern for about three years. He then moved to Portland and graduated from Portland State University.
In 2015, Uddin founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Portland called Friends of Rohingya USA. The organization provides support and humanitarian efforts to benefit Rohingya people.
“Ever since I came to the United States, I knew I wanted to someday have a chance to help the people back there,” Uddin said.
Last fall, he visited the 3,000-acre refugee camp at Kutupalong in Bangladesh, Myanmar’s neighbor.
“There were 800,000 people all in that one spot,” Uddin said. “It was heartbreaking.”
While there, Uddin purchased and distributed plastic sheets.
“It was monsoon season, so I bought plastic sheets to cover trees and use as a shelter,” he said.
When he returned to Portland, he was contacted by a friend he’d made at EOU, Parhez Sattar.
Sattar has lived in La Grande since graduating from Eastern and is the senior director of information services/CIO at Grande Ronde Hospital. Sattar said he has long kept an eye on the decades-long conflict in Myanmar, having been born in Bangladesh.
One day, Sattar was listening to an Oregon Public Broadcasting segment on the issue.
“The voice was very familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it,” Sattar said. “Then they said the name Reza, and I realized, ‘Wow, I know who that guy is.’”
When Sattar heard of Uddin’s efforts, he immediately wanted to help.
“I called him up and we talked about his organization,” Sattar said. “I asked if he’d thought about raising money and awareness in other communities.”
Sattar said the conversation transpired in September, and at that time not many news organizations were reporting the mass exodus of Rohingya. Awareness was going to be crucial, Sattar said.
Having organized events in the past, Sattar offered to do the leg work for a benefit dinner in October in La Grande.
La Grande’s contribution
Sattar spoke to some friends who were eager to get the ball rolling. He credits GRH radiologist Randy Siltanen and Diana Siltanen, who teaches at EOU as Oregon Health & Science University School of Nursing faculty, for spreading the word and helping with the arrangements.
A community member, as a birthday request, asked for and received help to pay the venue fees. Sattar and his wife, Runa, cooked all the food — a Southeast Asian menu — for the benefit dinner.
Sattar also received help from local businesses, which sold the tickets. All that was left to do was to share the stories. For that, Sattar said, it had to come from Uddin.
“I am not Rohingya,” he said. “I have seen it, and I can sympathize from a human perspective, but I cannot speak to that the way (Uddin could).”
Uddin returned to La Grande for the benefit dinner at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church on Oct. 14, 2017.
“Most people had not heard what was happening, and once they heard (Uddin’s) stories, we saw people weeping,” Sattar said.
Sattar said 70 percent of the refugees are women and children, and 40 percent of those are children whose parents have been displaced or killed.
“People started to think, ‘What if my kid was separated from me?’ We’re all connected,” Sattar said.
And it was this human connection that made the dinner a success.
“Those differences — white/non-white, Christian/Muslim — went away. The money we raised was great, but the change of mindset was our biggest accomplishment.”
By the end of the benefit dinner, the La Grande community had raised $3,000. Thanks to volunteer efforts, 100 percent of the funds raised went directly to the refugee camp.
“That may seem little in the big picture, but it led to two outhouses and tube wells and food distribution,” Sattar said.
The tube wells make it possible to collect water from deep underground, Uddin said, ensuring the water is sanitary and safe for drinking and showering. Friends of Rohingya USA has now raised enough funds for 25 tube wells, food distribution and outhouses for the refugees.
Uddin, who considers La Grande his second home, said he appreciates the community’s interest in an issue that is so far removed from their lives.
Sattar expressed similar gratitude.
“They showed so much love and care in such a short notice,” Sattar said. “We probably gave seven days notice, but they showed up and genuinely made a connection.”
Sattar said that kind of care is why he’s called La Grande home for 28 years.
“That’s why I never left,” he said. “Why would I not live here?”