In Arabic, the root word shatata is to scatter and the word for diaspora, shataat, is literally the scattered. Today, many communities live in this way, scattered across the globe from wherever they originated. Some returning often, others never. Some retaining their culture and passing on languages, and others not. Diaspora has become a concept for many groups — big or small. From the large Chinese diaspora that built Chinatowns the world over, to the smaller Tajik diaspora, people are spread out. The resulting diaspora communities are new phenomena for many groups of people, occurring because of immigration, voluntary or otherwise. The term was mostly associated with Jews, who lived in lands beyond their origin for centuries.
While immigrants face many hurdles, diaspora can give groups certain power. I was reminded of this power listening to a panel on the Rohingya genocide (a group whose name is not even recognized by Microsoft Word). One expert panelist said the lack of attention was a huge problem in moving towards any solution. People outside Burma have barely ever heard about the Rohingya, let alone cared about them. If people were educated on the atrocities there, they could put pressure on governments to condemn Burma, raise funds to help the refugees amassing on the border region of Bangladesh, and at least marginally improve the situation of the Rohingya.
Diaspora has the power to help in this process. If there were a large Rohingya diaspora that spoke English, French, German or other languages that command large audiences who lived in large cities, they could appear on CNN and represent the Rohingya. They could write op-eds for the Guardian instead of waiting for Westerners to notice and write on their own. Such a diaspora could campaign for the awareness, celebrity-recruitment, and fundraising that the Rohingya need.
Alas, such a diaspora does not exist. One of the panelists, who was a recent Rohingya immigrant to the UK, confirmed that there were very few people like him to do all the work necessary. Kurds have large diasporas, mostly in Northern Europe, who raise awareness and funds. Jews have the same. Armenians have the same. Although they are still met with doubt and even denial, these diasporas are able to shed light on the genocides of their past with the international community. Through this work we have come to learn about these atrocities, from the Halabja massacre to the Holocaust, to the Armenian genocide.
The Rohingya do not have such a diaspora. Because the Burmese government took Rohingyas’ citizenship away in 1982, they could not get passports to legally move between countries. Moreover, because their access to basic education was limited, many Rohingya couldn’t qualify for skill-based migration to any country. These hurdles were added on top of the general poverty of the mostly rural and isolated Rohingya.
Because the Rohingya have limited representation in the international public sphere, they need as much support from outsiders as possible to spread awareness about the Rohingya genocide and to raise funds for the victims and refugees. Being ‘the scattered,’ always tied to a faraway place, can be difficult. But this status, which the Rohingya lack through no fault of their own, carries some benefit in difficult times.