Peninsula Players Theatre presents a reading of “Go Save Your Life” by Nasir Bin Zakaria, as told to Laura Toffenetti Monday, February 5 at 7 p.m. at Björklunden, located at 7590 Boynton Lane, Baileys Harbor. “Go Save Your Life” is produced with support and in coordination with Door County Reads and its exploration of “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” by Kao Kalia Yang. Join the Players reading of Nasir Bin Zakaria’s harrowing and inspiring story as a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The cast, director and author will host a post-reading discussion. Admission is free.
“Go Save Your Life” shares Nasir ’s journey from the jungles of Myanmar to his new home in Chicago, Illinois. Featured in the play reading are actors Rom Barkhordar, as several men; Cheryl Hamada, as multiple women; and Demetrios E. Troy as Nasir. They are under the direction of Peninsula Players Artistic Director Greg Vinkler, who is thrilled to bring Nasir’s voice and story to Door County audiences.
“After I heard from Door County Reads that their 2018 book selection was ‘The Latehomecomer,’ I read the book and began to think about plays that might tie into that subject matter in a meaningful way,” Vinkler said. “It wasn’t long before I remembered conversations I’d had with my friend Steven Pringle, with whom I’d done a show at Chicago Shakespeare Theater earlier in the year. I recalled that he had spoken very emotionally of working with refugees in Chicago alongside his wife.
“I contacted him about getting some ideas and he obligingly gave me a couple. One was an Iraqi story which, while very interesting, didn’t seem quite appropriate, but the other was a story that, after reading, I felt perfectly complemented the journey that was laid out in ‘The Latehomecomer.’
“Laura Toffenetti, Steven’s wife and a playwright, had written a piece called ‘Go Save Your Life.’ It is the amazing story of Nasir Bin Zakaria, the founder of the refugee center where they volunteer. While Nasir is a Rohingyan refugee from Myanmar and Kao Yang’s book is about Hmong refugees from Laos, the stories so parallel each other that the Door County Library felt it to be a very worthwhile addition to their programming around the book. I think the piece helps personalize and make incredibly human with one man’s story the plight of so many peoples and cultures from that area and around the world that suffer from government indifference and even malign hatred.”
Nasir Bin Zakaria was from nowhere. In 1962, a new regime took power in Myanmar, and those of the Rohingya culture were persecuted and deprived of the most fundamental form of identity – citizenship – despite having lived in the country for several generations.
As Nasir walked to school, soldiers would taunt and harass him. At school, he was bullied, insulted with racial slurs and beaten by older boys. One day, when Nasir was a 14-year-old boy, militants, with weapons in-hand, insisted he not go to school. He was kidnapped and forced to work in their camp. Nasir spent a terrifying night in the jungle with the militants before escaping to Malaysia. He never saw his parents again.
He spent nearly two decades living undocumented in Malaysia working at various construction jobs. Eventually, he applied for citizenship to the United States and, once approved, he finally belonged somewhere.
Today Nasir, his wife and children are among the 1,000 Rohingya refugees who now call Chicago home. According to the U.S. Department of State, this group makes up nearly one-fifth of the Rohingya refugees who have resettled across the United States since 2010.
Nasir saw a need for a place where incoming Rohingya refugees could study English and become familiar with American society. He took a one-month leave from his full-time job as a dishwasher at a casino to focus on the development of the community center he now manages.
“If I quit my job, it doesn’t matter. If I lose the center, these 1,000 people will suffer,” he said to a Chicago Tribune reporter in April of 2016. Toffenetti is a retired teacher who volunteers at the center and was inspired to tell this story.
“Nasir’s story was fascinating to me,” Toffenetti said. “I wanted to get it down on paper since he did not have the literacy to write it himself. All their stories of survival deserve to be recorded as proof of their strength and courage in the face of hate.”