A Little Burma in Fort Wayne
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A Little Burma in Fort Wayne


By Lalit K Jha/Fort Wayne, Indiana JUNE, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.6


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Burmese residents of a US city still find it hard to escape the politics of their homeland

Than Myint arrived in the “land of opportunities” as a refugee nine years ago, together with her husband and children. A native of Rangoon, Than Myint now lives in Fort Wayne, a city of some 200,000 people in the US state of Indiana. Now in her late 50s, she has learned how to survive and lead a satisfactory life in the US—the kind of existence she would never have been able to enjoy in Burma.

 

“Life was not that easy in Burma, but when I landed in this country it was not that simple either. I was depressed. I wanted to go back,” says Than Myint. “But now I enjoy this country.” She has found her place in the US working at a sewing company where many of her fellow workers are Burmese, and where she is considered to be o­ne of the company’s best employees.

Than Myint still o­nly speaks Burmese; she knows very little English and communicates, if necessary, with the help of sign language. She is not alone among the Burmese community in her lack of English; there are others who aren’t able to speak the language of their new homeland. Because Fort Wayne has a sizeable population of Burmese residents who live and work in a close-knit community, they can get along without knowing much English.

The first Burmese arrivals came to Fort Wayne in the early 1990s. “Then, it was tough to find other Burmese here,” says Aung Chan, who was among the first few ethnic Mon to arrive in the city from the Thai-Burmese border in 1991.

Since then, however, Fort Wayne has become home to approximately 3,000 Burmese and can even lay claim to some Burmese celebrities and well-known political figures. Among the prominent Burmese living in Fort Wayne are the singer Mar Mar Aye, sculptor Zaung Sein, Hti Mu Belloc (daughter of the assassinated Karen National Union founder, Saw Ba U Gyi), and Soe Tint, who worked with the late Burmese Prime Minister U Nu during the 1988 uprising in Burma.

Fort Wayne now has three Buddhist temples, including o­ne exclusively for Mon people. There is also a grocery store called Little Burma, which is moving to a bigger location, and another grocery store will soon open.

Soe Htay, a longtime Fort Wayne resident, opened the city’s first Burmese restaurant in March this year. Called the Burmese Tea House, the small restaurant has carved a niche for itself o­n the town’s map of eateries within just a month of opening. The restaurant attracts not o­nly Burmese diners but also a large number of Americans.

 

“It seems there is a big demand for Burmese dishes and people here like it,” Soe Htay says proudly, adding that he also has plans to open a Burmese grocery store.

Aside from a small handful of Burmese entrepreneurs, there are very few Burmese business people in Fort Wayne and most work in blue collar jobs at o­ne of the many sewing factories or auto manufacturers belonging to major corporations based in and around the city. Employers often hire Burmese rather than local people because they are prepared to work for low wages and willingly put in more hours. “This is because we have to establish ourselves in an alien nation and have to start everything from scratch,” explains Than Myint.

Still, the community of Fort Wayne is prospering enough for local banks to start employing Burmese staff or keeping part-time translators who can help the bank attract Burmese customers. The Wells Fargo Bank has three Burmese staff members and has Burmese-language signs and printed material.

The Burmese residents of Fort Wayne have not remained untouched by the pressures of life in the US. Rev James Keller, a Lutheran clergyman who learned Burmese from a monk in Fort Wayne in order to help him in his work among the Burmese community, observes that the freedom and democracy they experience in the US can sometimes be a problem.

“There are increasing instances of divorce in this small community,” he says. “More cases of domestic violence are being reported every passing day.”

Keller says his knowledge of the Burmese language has enabled him to learn at first hand the difficulties faced by migrants from Burma—enrolling children at school, finding employment, paying taxes and opening a bank account.

Diana Sowards, who runs the nonprofit organization Friends of Burma, has helped several Burmese refugees to resettle in Fort Wayne. She believes the city’s Burmese community has much to offer in return for the welcome they have received. “They have added to the cultural diversity of this city,” she says.



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