Fort Wayne, Ind., may just be the closest you can get to Myanmar on American soil.
This city of 256,000 people in the American Midwest doesn’t seem so exceptional at first glance. But explore certain neighborhoods, and you’ll see that it has at least three Buddhist temples. There is a specialty supermarket called Little Burma. You can find Burmese food at restaurants like Mahnin Asia Restaurant on South Calhoun Street or Yathamon Asian Cuisine on East State Boulevard.
And on Tuesday, Fort Wayne’s War Memorial Coliseum on Parnell Avenue hosted none other than Myanmar’s most popular politician. Democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd of about 3,000 people there on Tuesday morning.
Suu Kyi, 67, is famous for her activism against the repressive regime of Myanmar, formerly called Burma. For that, she spent 15 years under house arrest and was finally released in 2010. In April of this year, Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, swept a general election in Myanmar after years of suppression.
Now, Suu Kyi is on her first visit to the United States in decades. Her 17-day trip includes stops in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
And in the middle of it all is Fort Wayne. The city is home to a thriving community of Myanmar refugees, many of whom were forced to flee their homes for political reasons. Those who attended Suu Kyi’s speech felt they had much in common with this pro-democracy leader.
“We align with her. ... We are very excited to be here. We've been waiting for 20 years,” said Myanmar refugee and Indiana resident Kaung Shein, 42, to NPR.
This all begs the obvious question: Why Fort Wayne?
As it turns out, the U.S. State Department and the local Catholic Church played a major role in the influx of Myanmar refugees to Indiana.
When a wave of Myanmar citizens fled their country following a 1998 government massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators, many arrived at refugee camps just outside the country’s borders.
According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the major influx of refugees into the United States did not begin until 2004. That migration was overseen by the U.S. Department of State under then-President George W. Bush, who often criticized the Myanmar regime. Former first lady Laura Bush made Mynamar a personal cause; she traveled to Thailand in 2008 to visit refugee camps there.
Since 2004, the U.S. State Department has helped tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees find their way to cities all across the United States. Fort Wayne, which had a small Myanmar population as early as 1991, made for a sensible destination.
As the second-largest city in Indiana, Fort Wayne was urban enough to offer diverse resources to newcomers, but not overwhelmingly crowded like major centers of Los Angeles and New York, which also have large communities of Myanmar refugees.
Another key detail about Fort Wayne: it’s serves as a hub for diverse Christian groups. For that, it is commonly referred to as the City of Churches. And many of those churches have devoted themselves to social projects that make life easier for refugees and other international migrants.
The Catholic Charities of the Diocese Fort Wayne-South Bend has been a major player in those efforts, having helped about 1,400 refugees build new lives in Allen County. The organization started practicing refugee resettlement in 1975, just after the fall of Saigon, to accommodate South Vietnamese immigrants who fled to the United States. Refugees from other countries were also welcome.
The group’s office in Fort Wayne was formally recognized by the U.S. federal government as an official immigration services facility in 2002.
The biggest wave of refugees to be resettled by Catholic Charities came in 2008. In that year, the organization settled 1,468 people in Allen County, the vast majority of whom were from Myanmar. The refugees were provided with English language courses, cultural services and job assistance programs.
After a while, Mynamar refugees who had settled in other cities began to migrate to Allen County on their own, drawn by the success of assimilation programs there.
That’s not to say it’s all Zen in Fort Wayne. A great many Myanmar refugees there still have difficulties adjusting to American life, and language barriers have presented a real challenge. It is no coincidence that Suu Kyi delivered her Fort Wayne speech in Burmese, not English.
Furthermore, recent budget cuts have endangered refugee welfare programs in Allen County. There are now concerns that Indiana cannot provide adequate resources for the refugees who continue to trickle in.
Even Catholic Charities had to bite the bullet. The organization ended its storied resettlement program this year, after federal funding dried up for the first time in decades. The organization will continue to provide assistance to the approximately 4,000 Myanmar refugees who already live in Allen County.
For now, those refugees have other concerns. As Suu Kyi addressed the crowd today, human rights violations were still rife in Myanmar. A gradual liberalization is underway under current President Thein Sein, but after years of political repression, the turnaround is slow. There are hundreds of political prisoners being detained in Myanmar, and thousands are still stuck in refugee camps along the border.
Part of Suu Kyi’s goal in coming to the United States is to raise awareness about Myanmar and convince U.S. administration to lighten sanctions against the country and provide more humanitarian aid.
And most of Fort Wayne’s refugee population hope to see her succeed.
Thiya Ba Kyi, who attended Suu Kyi’s speech at the Memorial Coliseum, moved to the United States from Myanmar in 1994. But even after years of assimilation, he’s still keen on returning to the country he calls home.
“I would like to move back,” he said to NPR. “Hopefully they’ll need educated people who have experience in a democratic country.”