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Last updated: Wed. Feb. 27, 2013 - 07:19 am EDT

Fort Wayne's Burmese center evolving to embrace other immigrants

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The Burmese Advocacy Center is evolving as it embraces other immigrants in the Fort Wayne area.

The number of Burmese coming to the Fort Wayne area from overseas has dropped over the past few years. This year Catholic Charities can take up to 170 new Burmese, but Holly Chaille, director of the Catherine Kasper Place, said last year Catholic Charities was approved for a similar number and only about half actually came.

“Most of the people we have coming are in secondary migration from other states,” board member Kham Mung said, adding, “We may have more than expected in the future.”

Center director Minn Myint Nan Tin said although they may not been getting as many Burmese refugees settling in Fort Wayne as they used to there are already more than 6,000 Burmese in the Fort Wayne area.

“We also work with Congo, Somalia and Chad refugees,” Minn Myint Nan Tin said.

It takes more than three or four years to understand the American system, she said, and it is an ongoing process. Education and employment are still huge issues. Many of those who are working here are in very low-paying jobs and are living in poverty. Serving this population is where the center comes in.

“It's really important we stand by the clients we have and make sure our services are working for them,” said Sophia Tippmann, board president.

The nonprofit agency moved from 2826 S. Calhoun St. to 2424 Lake Ave. a little over a year ago. The number of walk-in clients had dropped off but now the numbers are beginning to increase as people learn where they are; a couple of weeks ago they had 45.

Currently the center has 130 families as clients, and will add another 60 this year. That number is deceptive, said Minn Myint Nan Tin, because the center is really serving at least twice that number of people when you factor in all the members of the family.

The center's current programming includes the family intensive care unit, immigrant and refugee job development, vocational training, cross-cultural education and organizational leadership. Staff are also working with the Karen, Chin and Muslim organizations, who work out of the Burmese Advocacy Center office. The center is helping them to become self-sufficient and start their own organizations.

Board member Pat Proctor said the center serves a function in society helping the Burmese and as a focal point for agencies who want to help but don't know where to go. Metro and Indiana civil rights commissions were able to come to the center when they were trying to reach Burmese on landlord-tenant issues.

Because center staff can communicate with the Burmese population they are called upon to do translation and interpretation for Fort Wayne Community Schools, Fort Wayne Housing, Healthier Moms and Babies, the Fort Wayne Police Department, hospitals, clinics and legal services. They have also participated in leadership training and refugee case-management seminars.

They have monthly educational programs for their clients, but anyone is welcome to attend. They are working with the Metro and the Indiana civil rights commissions on housing, education, employment and the public sector.

Last year the center held a community recognition celebration for the 100 Burmese high school graduates. Out of the 100, 67 are getting higher education at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, 12 at Indiana University, and the rest at area vocational schools. The center, Minn Myint Nan Tin said, would like to help those who floundered in high school and are now in low-paying factory jobs. Some of those were teens when they came to America.

That is a very difficult situation to be in, said Min Shwe Oo, a case worker and center board member. Most of the teens cannot learn enough English or understand the high school system well enough to succeed as students in only four years.

They have a harder time than Burmese who are born here or arrived in grade school. This is a problem as they try to fit into high school and their new culture while still living in their old culture at home. All too often they end up in low-paying factory jobs.

“Education is the key factor,” said Minn Myint Nan Tin.

“It's very hard for the Burmese to adjust to the culture, going from the jungle to an advanced society. If you don't have the language your future is dark. The BAC serves as a bridge to go from the former culture to their new culture,” Kham Mung said.

Although the role of what the BAC does for the Burmese and immigrant populations of Fort Wayne may change as those populations become assimilated into the American culture, the center's board members believe just as there is a United Hispanic Americans, there will be an ongoing role in the community for the BAC.

ebogue@news-sentinel.com


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