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U.S. Midterm Election See Muslim American Women Making History

A style that will be put to the test come January, when Tlaib and Omar enter Congress as freshman lawmakers in a chamber their party will control.

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Through the wind and rain, and longer than usual lines, casting a vote this election for former state lawmaker and Congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib wasn’t about making history for Detroit voter David White… it was about making a difference.

“Rashida represents everything that undermines those stereotypes,” he told VOA outside the Detroit fire station that doubles as a polling site on election days. “She doesn’t just appeal to a Muslim community. She appeals to a wide swath of individuals, and it just happens to be that she is Muslim, so I think it is important for the Muslim community, but important for other communities.. any community really… to see Rashida and her effectiveness and advocacy as an outstanding public servant as an example that your race doesn’t define you.”

It also didn’t define Somali refugee and Minnesota Congressional candidate Democrat Ilhan Omar to a diverse coalition of voters in the election race that helped her secure a victory over the Republican challenger in her Minneapolis district.

“I stand here before you tonight as your congresswoman-elect, with many firsts behind my name,” she told a crowd of supporters at her mid term election victory party. “The first woman of color to represent our state in Congress. The first woman to wear a hijab to represent our state in Congress. The first refugee ever elected to Congress. And one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.”

 

Riding solid gains for Democratic candidates in the U.S midterm elections, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are now set to make history when they become the first Muslim American congresswomen when the next U.S. legislative body convenes in January. Expectations are high for both women as they seek to influence U.S. policy on issues ranging from immigration reform to foreign policy at a time when their faith is under increasing hostility.

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Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar reacts after appearing at her midterm election night party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. VOA

While both were elected in districts that could be considered liberal and progressive – heavily favoring their political party – voters like Allyson Brooks, who cast her ballot in the same Detroit polling location as Tlaib, says this historic moment was a long time coming. “It’s crazy that it’s 2018 and this could possibly be the first time that this is happening. We need more Muslims in the Congress, in the Senate and in the House.”

“Being Arab and being Muslim is always going to be a part of who I am,” Tlaib told VOA in between last-minute campaign activities on election day. “But just like prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, he was all about justice, so, so much of my thinking is embedded in justice.”

Tlaib, who also becomes the first Palestinian American in Congress, promises her reputation as an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump and his administration’s policies isn’t going to change as she makes the transition from candidate to Congresswoman.

“It’s never going to happen. It’s just not in me. I think people say to me all the time, we wanted different and that’s why we voted for you. We need someone who’s going to go in and fight.

 

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Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib celebrates with her mother at her midterm election night party in Detroit, Michigan. VOA

 

A fight voter David White is confident she is prepared for, even if he isn’t.

“My personal style is not Rashida’s style… standing up in the middle of a speech and shouting him down,” he explained, referencing Tlaib’s August 2016 encounter at then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance before the Detroit Economic Club. During Trump’s speech, Tlaib spoke out from the crowd and was forcibly removed from the event by security. “We need some of that,” White insisted, “We need some of that strong resistance even though I don’t necessarily identify with that style.”

 

A style that will be put to the test come January, when Tlaib and Omar enter Congress as freshman lawmakers in a chamber their party will control. (VOA)

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Rohingyas Repatriation to Myanmar Scrapped by Bangladesh

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months.

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An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Bangladesh’s plans to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday were scrapped because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return to the country that has been accused of driving out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press. He said officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

Some people on the government’s repatriation list disappeared into the sprawling refugee camps to avoid being sent home, while others joined a large demonstration against the plan.

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Workers build a Rohingya repatriation center in Gunndum near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA

UN urged a halt to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017 to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

The United Nations, whose human rights officials had urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation process even as its refugee agency workers helped to facilitate it, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said it was unclear when the process might begin again.

“We want their repatriation, but it has to be voluntary, safe and smooth,” he said.

Bangladesh officials declined to say whether another attempt at repatriation would be made Friday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in Dhaka late Thursday that “there is no question of forcible repatriation. We gave them shelter, so why should we send them back forcibly?”

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Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Pleading with Rohingya

At the Unchiprang refugee camp, a Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya on Thursday to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Some refugees on the repatriation lists, which authorities say were drawn up with assistance from the UNHCR, said they don’t want to go back.

‘I don’t want to go back’

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees on the repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers, which on Thursday were bustling with commerce and other activity.

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Rohingya refugees shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Plan to return 150 a day

Bangladesh had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

Myanmar officials, speaking late Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, said they were ready to receive the refugees. Despite those assurances, human rights activists said conditions were not yet safe for the Rohingya to go back.

The exodus began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

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Rohingya refugees cross floodwaters at Thangkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. VOA

Refugee camps bleak

The refugees survived the ransacking of villages, rapes and killings in Myanmar, but for many, life in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps has been bleak.

The refugees who’ve arrived in the last year joined a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

Access to education and employment has been far from assured.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who hopes to retain power in December elections, has repeatedly complained that hosting more than a million Rohingya is taxing local resources.

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, criticized Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Also Read: Rohingya Muslims Remain Fearful Due To Forceful Repatriation

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the U.N. “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.” (VOA)