The federal government placed fewer Burmese refugees in the Fort Wayne area this year than anticipated, conceding to a local economy increasingly unable to meet residents’ needs.
The State Department says about 300 Burmese refugees were resettled in the Fort Wayne area between October 2008 and October 2009, about half the number aid agencies had been expecting, a result of lobbying by agencies tasked with placing refugees in their new homes.
Although that’s the third-highest number of refugees welcomed in a year, it pales in comparison with the more than 800 refugees resettled here the year before.
The federal government considers community resources, refugees’ geographic preferences and family reunifications when deciding where to assign refugees. National representatives of 10 voluntary agencies charged with resettling refugees meet weekly to discuss incoming cases.
For a while, only refugees with family members already in the Summit City have been resettled here, but “family reunification” was being broadly interpreted locally to include aunts, uncles, first and second and more, State Department spokeswoman Beth Schlachter said.
Oppressed refugees have been fleeing Myanmar, as Burma is called by its ruling military government, for decades. Since the 1990s, many have been sent to Fort Wayne. As the Burmese refugee population swelled over the past decade, an increasing number of incoming refugees asked to be placed with relatives in the city, Schlachter said.
After refugees are in the U.S., they’re able to move freely, so many take it upon themselves to reunite their own families, “secondary migrants,” Schlachter said. Buoyed by secondary migration, the city is believed to now have the largest concentration of Burmese refugees in the U.S., estimated at more than 5,000, according to Catholic Charities and other human-services agencies.
Since April, at the request of local refugee resettlement agencies, the State Department has limited “family reunification” to parents, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren. Each city’s resources available to refugees are evaluated independently, and Detroit and Fort Wayne are the only two cities with the current restrictions, Schlacter said.
“We’re trying to encourage people to go places where they would have a smoother transition and better chances of employment,” she said.
At the start of 2009, local social-services agencies were bracing for a third year of record numbers of refugees, so the downturn came as a relief.
Several years of high refugee numbers stretched the resources of schools and agencies such as the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, which struggled to provide basic services such as immunizations. Even the reduced number of refugees this year was a challenge, Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan said.
“It’s been a real learning experience, I think, for all of us,” she said.
When the State Department approves refugees for admission into the U.S., placement agencies receive two weeks’ notice that the refugees are coming. The agencies receive a stipend to provide housing, furniture, food and job placement help, and they can’t turn away refugees.
Until the start of this year, Catholic Charities was the only agency in Fort Wayne given the task by the federal government of resettling refugees in northeast Indiana. In January, World Relief, a faith-based international humanitarian aid organization, opened an office at Simpson United Methodist Church on South Harrison Street in anticipation of the increased flow of refugees.
Catholic Charities, which considers 150 to 250 refugees a year a wieldy number, had advocated for a slowdown as early as 2007, Executive Director Debbie Schmidt said.
Although World Relief’s representatives agreed to the restrictions, secondary migration brings its own challenges because refugees come without the support system of a local resettlement agency, said Julie Navrotsky, church and volunteer coordinator for World Relief.
“In some ways, the restrictions have perpetuated that problem,” she said. “I think we understand both sides.”
World Relief resettled 65 refugees in Fort Wayne between January and September, about 35 fewer than it had hoped, a disappointment to the local agency, Navrotsky said.
“The purpose of World Relief coming to town was to help with the influx,” Navrotsky said.
World Relief has resettled refugees only from Myanmar this year, but it might start resettling refugees from elsewhere or begin programs to help secondary migrants, she said. Even when local refugees struggle to find work, most are grateful to be out of refugee camps, reunited with family members and in a place where their children will receive an education.
“Hopefully, the numbers will come up,” Navrotsky said.
Catholic Charities also plans to do more for secondary migrants and will assign two caseworkers to the year-old Burmese Advocacy Center for that purpose, starting next month, said Nyein Chan, resettlement services director for Catholic Charities.
World Relief volunteer Nilar Mon, 37, came to the U.S. five years ago when her husband applied for political asylum.
She should have an edge over most of the Burmese newcomers in getting a job – she has a driver’s license and speaks English; she graduated from high school in Burma; and she is an experienced seamstress.
But Nilar Mon was laid off from her factory job four months ago and has been unable to find work since, and neither has her husband, who also speaks English. It’s even more difficult for refugees arriving in the city who don’t speak English and often lack basic education, she said.
She spent a recent morning visiting newly arrived refugees in their apartments, dropping off diapers and household items, talking refugees through the unfamiliarity of Fort Wayne’s public transportation system and the cold, wet snow.
“They are scared to go out of their apartment,” she said. “The snow is too cold. They never saw that.”
But many of the refugees do venture out by necessity, traveling to work if they can find it. Two common sources of employment are Vera Bradley locally and Tyson Foods Inc. in Logansport, but those companies can only offer so much, Navrotsky said.
Navrotsky has seen more refugees trying to tap into the growing population by starting Burmese-focused businesses, many home-based, and restaurants.
“There are some pretty innovative things going on, but there’s just not enough work to go around for people who want a job,” she said.
Nilar Mon hopes to be one of those innovators in a few months. After being laid off, she enrolled in cosmetology school. She hopes to open a salon to serve the Burmese community.
She’s about a fifth of the way to that goal, but she and her husband have two children to support and no job between them.