As Burmese immigrants adapt to the culture of Fort Wayne they go to school, they join the work force, and, like the general population, they too end up in the criminal justice system.
On a recent morning in Allen Superior Court a young Burmese man was being sentenced for domestic violence in Judge John Surbeck's courtroom. A translator hovered by the guilty man's shoulder. As Surbeck read the sentence he paused here and there so the translator could do his job.
The Burmese man was sentenced to attend a 29-week class at the Center for Nonviolence, 235 E. Creighton Ave. John Beams, senior men's program coordinator and a licensed practicing social worker at the center, handles the men's class.
Beams said at times they have enough participants to create a Burmese class, with as many as six Burmese in a class. However in the past couple of months they have been dealing more with one or two, so they are mainstreamed into the regular domestic violence program.
Beams said the Burmese men in the program say that women in the Burmese culture are highly respected and there is no domestic violence. Beams sees this as denial but also partially true. As long as Burmese women follow the traditional role assigned to them domestic violence is not an issue. However, when Burmese men come to America, they often find freedom is not what they expected. They find themselves in an alien culture with a language they don't understand and where no one seems to like them very much.
They are given six months to assimilate and find a job. Their wives and children begin to taste the freedoms that American women and children have, and the traditional subordinate roles within the family collapse. The men become depressed and frustrated and do not know how to communicate with their wives about the evolving roles in their relationship. They often turn to alcohol in their depression and give up. Alcohol and frustration often leads to domestic violence. Unlike in their culture where domestic violence is seen as a family problem, in America it is not.
Similar to most men who come to the program, Beams said the Burmese men deny or minimize their abuse of alcohol and level of violence. If they admit an incident of violence they attribute it to an isolated moment of loss of self-control. The difference is it is harder for the center's staff to get the men to recognize it goes beyond a single moment.
Whether teaching a full Burmese section or one or two individuals everything has to go through an interpreter because many of the clients aren't fluent in English. Through trial and error staff discovered a Burmese woman made the best interpreter. Burmese male interpreters tended to side with the offenders and Beams said he was never really sure how much of what they were saying was getting through. They have also had a Burmese man who tried to interject his own Buddhist teachings into the mix, and that didn't work well either. To use non-Burmese interpreters is impossible because they are seen as cultural outsiders.
Through the 29 weekly sessions, Beams works with the men to get them to accept that their traditional roles might need to adapt to their new country. By talking about Burmese history and showing how things have changed he begins to get them thinking about cultural evolution. He talks about how the Burmese government has changed from a monarchy, then a British colony, and now a military regime, which is slowly becoming a democracy. He uses some of the teachings of Democratic Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi to make his points. He slowly gets them to see that change can be good, to understand life is like clay and not a static rock. Through this he is able to establish trust, and they tell him their stories.
“Their stories almost to a man are, 'In the world from which we came we didn't have to be violent for things to be held together; there was respect,'” Beams said.
Beams said with domestic violence you strive to teach the offender to acknowledge what he is doing is wrong, then teach the offender new coping mechanisms and choices so he won't make the same mistakes again. The Burmese might never acknowledge what they did was wrong. However, if Beams can get them to see how it's OK to change their traditional behavior in their new environment he believes he has a chance of making a difference in their behavior.
“We spend a fair amount of timing bowing and respecting each other,” Beams said.
Beam said he believes the men love the fact that he honors them, and they might listen to him more because he isn't Burmese. Burma is made up of numerous ethnicities and religions, and Beams said he feels they are more likely to trust someone who falls outside all those groups and has no allegiances to anyone at the table.
Once he has their respect he feels the men will better listen to say what he has to say about women.
They use role playing. When the Burmese men role-play they begin to see they lack the skill set to listen to a real woman talk about how she feels about something. It isn't something they had to do in a traditional relationship. Then the men see it's OK to stop blaming them for not living the way they did in 12th-century Burma. What they find out, said Beams, is they can listen to their wives with the same amount of respect that they do for their best friend.
The men refused to do the role-playing until Beams started taping it. They would role-play the abuse and then how to handle the problem in a nonviolent way; then they try it again and try to talk it out. Beams said he can't understand what they are saying but he understands the body language, and his interpreter lets him know when she believes they are getting it.
“Having the camera on us is like the eye of God on us, and it changed the depth of what they thought about while they did it,” Beams said.
Beams said they have had few repeat offenders. Partially he believes that's because the Burmese are afraid of law enforcement after their experiences in Burma, where police have a history of arresting people under the military regime, but he hopes some of it is because they got something out of their lessons at the center.
“We have probably worked with 30 or 40 Burmese in the past decade,” Beams said.
Beams wonders if the recent drop-off in numbers reflects an adjustment to the culture and it could be they are over the crisis of expectations they have when they first arrive.