Fort Wayne has one of the largest communities of Burmese in the United States.
The majority came as refugees fleeing the oppression of the authoritarian government starting in 1991. With the help of the U.S. State Department’s resettlement program and through the efforts of Catholic Charities in Fort Wayne, along with secondary migration from other cities, about 500 refugees were in Fort Wayne by the mid- to late ’90s.
Starting in 2006 through 2009 the largest influx of refugees came, 1,500. Many of them were Muslim. In 2010 the State Department, no longer seeing a need as the government of Burma, also called Myanmar, began to move toward democratic reforms, began to phase out the resettlement programs from the Thai border camps where the majority of the refugees had come.
Some in the Burmese community estimate the total number of Burmese living in Fort Wayne at around 5,000, but others suggest it is closer to 7,000. Problems that the refugees faced early on — such as housing, employment and public services — are changing to the challenges of home ownership and the struggles between parents and children who are now divided by language and culture.
While some of the population work at factory jobs because of their limited English and education, others have gone on to open their own businesses. Most of these new businesses are restaurants and grocery stores, said Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center. There are now 13 groceries, three restaurants, two hair salons and one car dealer.
Some refugees with better educations and language skills are now working in higher education and even a bank. Many have become U.S. citizens. They are becoming Americans, but at what cost to their families and culture?
Burma is divided into states. Each state has a distinct culture and in some cases language. Fort Wayne’s Burmese community is made up of several ethnic groups, including Karen Christian, Karen Muslim, Chin and Mon. Since the ’90s, religious affiliations were primarily Christian and Buddhist. The last major push of refugees, between 2006 and 2009 were Muslim. According to International Fort Wayne’s website, as of 2012 there were “5 Buddhist Temples, three Moslem groups, perhaps 5 Christian congregations, a Seventh Day Adventist and Catholic congregation.”
In a recent meeting, several of the different Burmese ethnic community leaders expressed their views on what has happened since they came here. One of their biggest concerns is the differences they have in rearing their children here. In the meeting were Taing Tan, president of the Mon Community; Ahr Yu, a Burmese advocate; Jo Naing, Karen Community president; Soe Chain, whose birth name is Aung M Soe and who works with the Burmese Advocacy Center office as a writer and is an editor of the News Burma Journal; Abraham Thang, Chin Community leader; and Ye Win, Burmese Muslim Community Center secretary.
In Burma corporal punishment is an option when children get out of line. Here it is not. One of the challenges the group felt was the adjustment to this new way of thinking.
Just like their American counterparts, some of the Burmese youth have been caught up in gangs and drugs, primarily marijuana. The leaders also mentioned an age-old rivalry between Muslim and Christian Burmese has resulted in some teens fighting.
Despite these problems, and differences in law, they like the freedom they have here.
Working has been hard to adjust to. Because of language barriers and lack of education, many of the adults have been stuck in low-paying factory work.
“When I came here, I was No. 89 in the Burmese community,” Ahr Yu, Burmese advocate, said.
Despite language and job difficulties, he was happy to have his two daughters in a real kindergarten class, something they did not have in the refugee camps. Working with others in the community they taught English as a Second Language classes starting in 2005 at the apartments on Westbrook Drive. By 2008 there was such a huge influx in the population of Burmese in Fort Wayne that it was very difficult to help them all learn English, but that was around the time the Burmese Advocacy Center was started.
“They were very busy,” Ahr Yu said.
Now both his daughters are adults; one is a Navy officer, the other a lance corporal in the Marines in Japan. He works in the Vera Bradley shipping department and is a court translator.
Jo Naing, Karen Community president, said they are trying very hard to maintain their culture, but there are many family and educational issues. Children here, he said, go their own way when they are 18. In Burma children lived with their parents until they married. Once they turn 18 they would rather work than get their higher education. The parents are pushing for that.
“A lot of youth are using drugs, and Mom and Dad cannot handle that,” said Jo Naing, a pastor.
He is trying to help the parents. Some children do not obey the law or their parents. He said both parents and children need to be educated about American culture and laws.
Taing Tan, president of the Mon Community, said his children do not always see the importance in getting a good education, but he does. So he, like many other parents in the Burmese community work long hours to save enough money for their children to get a higher education. The worst three words he hears from his children are when they say, “I don’t care.”
Although parents are worried about the children who are swept up into drugs, it is by and large not all the students. Several weeks ago a member of the U.S. Justice Department met with 18 high school-age children to talk about bullying. When asked what they would do after high school, all but one planned to go to college.
Language still remains a challenge for some of the first-generation refugees. Abraham Thang, Chin community leader, said one of the frustrations he stills sees are people who are victimized in the community because of the language barrier. They cannot always communicate with the police.
On a more positive note, Ye Win, Burmese Muslim Community Center secretary, said there are lots of Burmese homeowners now, at least 100 in the Muslim population. Most people have a full-time job and make their own income. A few still get government food assistance because of their lower incomes and larger family sizes.
“They have gone from depending on the government to becoming taxpaying citizens of the United States,” said Ye Win.
Minn Myint Nan Tin said now that many of their Burmese leaders understand the American language and culture she believes it is time for the Burmese to become more involved in local business and politics.
“That is the way we can make our community stronger,” she said.