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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Minn Myint Nan Tin is the executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center.
Sunday profile

Refugee puts life experiences to work

Burmese advocate helps immigrants adapt to city

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center, right, chats with staffers Chan Hmaine Aung, left, and Ye Win Latt.
Minn Myint Nan Tin, about 16 in this photo, served in the armed branch of the pro-democracy movement, All-Burma Student Democratic Front.

Minn Myint Nan Tin is sitting at her office desk, dressed in an olive-green turtleneck sweater with a black knit scarf draped fashionably around her neck. Her shiny, shoulder-length black hair is pulled back.

She is 35, a single mom, a student working on a master’s degree in business administration at Indiana Wesleyan University and executive director of the year-old Burmese Advocacy Center in Fort Wayne. She looks every bit the part of a busy young professional woman.

Then there is The Picture.

“I want to show you my life,” she says by way of introduction, reaching into an envelope with about a dozen snapshots from two decades ago.

The Picture shows a young woman with short hair wearing a light-green military fatigue shirt. She is standing in a clearing of what was once dense jungle in front of three rough-hewn bamboo huts. She is wearing blue flip-flops and in her hands she holds an automatic rifle.

“That’s me,” Nan Tin says. She’s about 16 in the photo, she says, and it was taken at a military encampment near the Thai border in the Karen region of what was then called Burma, now Myanmar, in Southeast Asia.

The photo marks the beginnings of a journey that led Nan Tin to become another thread in the diverse human fabric of Fort Wayne.

Growing up in Burma

Nan Tin’s upbringing was relatively ordinary, she says. As a child in Burma, she was part of the middle class, with a father who had served in the military and a mother who was a housewife and liked tending her garden.

There were nine sisters and a brother in the family, which shared its Mon ethnicity with about 11 percent of residents of Burma. Nan Tin grew up in Mon state, but like many Mon faced with assimilation pressure, never learned the language, she says. The family spoke Burmese.

Then came Sept. 18, 1988, and Nan Tin’s life changed. Claiming it needed to save the country from chaos because of a potential Chinese takeover and perhaps a military invasion by the United States, Burma’s military staged a coup. It came after a protracted economic crisis that had sapped the savings and patience of the population.

What ensued was chaos of a different sort. In the months before the coup, “there was a people’s movement,” Nan Tin says. Large numbers of residents, especially university students, took to the streets in protest.

The military cracked down. “They killed a thousand people like this, in the capital, in Rangoon,” she says, pointing to a news photograph of a young man with a bloodied shirt in a crowd of demonstrators.

“I was not there,” she says of that protest. “I was very young.” But within months, she and her brother, Win Moe, had left their family to join the pro-democracy movement, led by the All-Burma Student Democratic Front, or ABSDF.

The price the two paid was their relationship with their parents. Their father was part of the socialist party. “He never supported what my brother and I did,” she says. “He said, ‘You don’t know what happened in our country before.’ … My brother and I stopped talking (to him) about it. We never talked about politics at all.”

But, she adds, “That was how I come to live in (the) jungle.” Her stay would last more than three years.

While there, she says, she and her brother separated. She later got word that he was dead. To this day, she does not know whether he was killed, died of an injury or succumbed to a disease such as malaria, or its more fearsome cousin, dengue fever.

Nan Tin says she never had to shoot a person, but she was trained to handle weapons. She was part of the ABSDF’s armed branch that joined forces with ethnic rebels, including the Kachin Independent Army in northern Burma and Karen fighters in the eastern part of the country.

“When you have a country where the group with power have weapons, I believed you have to fight it back with weapons. I thought it was the way they pay attention. That is what I thought,” she says. “Later, I realized that was not how to solve the problem. Later, I come to believe in nonviolence.

“The belief I have is in freedom. Everybody in Burma should have that right. They shouldn’t be in jail or be beaten.”

Life in Thailand

Around 1991, Nan Tin went across the border into Thailand, as did many others.

She, however, was not fleeing, but had been assigned to work as an information officer for the movement, to promote the issues in Burma to the international community. Until 1995, she lived – “freely,” she says – in Bangkok.

She also worked with the Burmese Women’s Union, which assisted women who had come to Thailand either as migrant workers or refugees and often worked illegally.

During those years, Burma became increasingly troubled. The military government, which had outlawed English and closed universities, announced it was changing the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989. An election was held in 1990, and the student-supported National League for Democracy won. But the military suppressed the election and jailed or confined its opponents. Return became impossible, Nan Tin says.

While in Thailand, Nan Tin heard about a United Nations resettlement program that would allow her to seek political asylum in the United States. She applied and was accepted. She came to Indianapolis, aided by a religious resettlement agency in 1995.

Nan Tin says she feels fortunate that she avoided spending years in one of the refugee camps that were set up along the Thai-Burmese border as a solution to the swelling numbers of refugees. And, once in Indianapolis, she learned English and volunteered at a refugee services center.

She finally landed at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“I loved it,” she says. She got involved in a Burmese student group, participated in cultural activities, and wrote freelance articles about the growing expatriate movement for the Voice of America. She also came to see education as the way to rebuild Burma into a freer, gentler country.

“I feel reborn,” she says.

Dedication to others

Yet, as Nan Tin’s involvement with her education and the Burmese community continued, part of her life became more difficult.

She had married a man she had known since her time in the jungle, and they had a son, Min Soe Moe. But by the year after his birth, the marriage ended.

Her culture’s expectations for women were difficult to accommodate in the United States, she says. And she was used to taking unusual roles – only about 20 young women lived at the jungle camp, she says, but perhaps as many as 20,000 young men took the route of armed resistance.

“Here, it’s not like Burma because here both men and women have to work. We were both very active in organizations, and we never have any time with each other,” she says.

She has been on her own for 11 years.

After graduating from IU, Nan Tin worked at the university’s international center and on a project of the Northeast Indiana Labor Council teaching immigrant workers about their rights and responsibilities under labor laws. In 2006, she started working at Northridge Middle School, as a liaison between Fort Wayne Community Schools and the growing number of families from the former Burma.

Last year, she was hired to work full time at the center, which began in 2008 as a volunteer group with the leadership of Dr. Khin Mar Oo, an internist from Burma with a practice in Auburn.

The center, which now shares space in the Community Resource Center for Refugees at 2826 S. Calhoun St., is a busy place. The Fort Wayne area’s refugee population, estimated at 6,000, made 9,882 visits for classes and other services from Dec. 1, 2008, to Dec. 1 of this year. Friday, the center celebrated its first anniversary.

Refugees continue to arrive in Fort Wayne as part of a secondary migration – family and friends of people who have already settled here, Oo says. About 600 arrived last year, and the center addresses their basic needs – finding housing and warm clothing, getting food, going to the doctor, getting a state ID, enrolling their kids in school and learning to take the bus or drive.

“You need a leader who can go out into the community and be a go-between between the local people and the (refugee) community,” Oo says. “It has to be selfless, social service for others. You can’t be aggressive because this is not a war. You have to have a personality of being dedicated to others.”

The center “is the first organization run by ourselves to help our people with social services,” says Nan Tin, noting that it now has non-profit status. “We’re very proud of it.”

A child of Burma

Still, Nan Tin cringes a little when she is called a leader. Meg Distler, executive director of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, says it’s because in her homeland “leaders” so often oppress, imprison and kill. What Nan Tin would rather be called is “an advocate,” says Distler, whose organization has assisted the advocacy center.

“She’s been blessed with a great head and a big heart. She has seen tremendous devastation and suffering, and she is open to learning how she can best help the people from Burma,” Distler says.

Asked to describe her role, Nan Tin demurs. “I want to see who I am. People cannot describe themselves,” she says. “A leader is someone who people accept in their heart. I am not leader. I am trying to be a good follower, to accept what people say.”

But as for going back home, she does not think that will happen.

“I don’t want to go back at this point because we want to see the clear picture. We want to see who is supporting our movement and democracy in Burma,” Nan Tin says. She calls those who have settled in the United States “like a little nation. … It’s like a bridge so we can someday do things in Burma. We can rebuild.”

In her heart, she remains always a child of Burma.

When she became a citizen in 2008, she decided to change her name. Born Min Min Htwe Nge, she says, she now goes by Minn Myint Nan Tin – a combination of her mother’s and father’s last names. Her father died in 2007 and her mother in 2008.

“I leave Burma, and I never had any way to do for them, to help them,” she says. “I wanted to have them always with me.”