Allen Countys Burmese population includes about 3,800 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Thats a simple sentence with the potential to cap several years of uncertainty for local refugee advocates and social service agencies, who have estimated the total to be thousands higher. Reaction to the figure was mixed amid those who work with the areas Burmese refugee community.
Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne–South Bend Diocese can say in no uncertain terms that it resettled the vast majority of Burmese refugees brought to northeast Indiana since 1991. That influx, overseen by the U.S. Department of State, brought 2,602 Burmese refugees to Allen County over those two decades, said Nyein Chan, Catholic Charities refugee coordinator.
More than 70 percent of those refugees were sent to Fort Wayne in the latter half of the last decade, beginning in 2006. And thats where the uncertainty about the size of the local population began.
With that influx came another wave of immigration not directed by a government agency.
Drawn by the booming community, the opportunity to reunite with friends and relatives and a relatively healthy local economy, Fort Wayne saw a large number of secondary migrants – refugees who came to Fort Wayne after being placed elsewhere in the U.S. by the State Department, Chan said.
Chan was part of Fort Waynes Complete Count Committee, a volunteer team appointed by elected officials to ensure undercounted populations were reached for the census.
The committee put forth a mighty effort, he said. That, combined with his agencys careful study of the issue, have him convinced the census numbers are accurate.
It pretty much makes sense to me, he said. We worked so hard to count the people in Allen County.
Catholic Charities offers some services to refugees who come to Fort Wayne from other cities, such as job development services, Chan said. The people who use those services are tracked by the agency, and through that method, Catholic Charities estimates the secondary migrant community at 2,000, he said.
The recession caused the secondary migration to slow down and some refugee families to leave. So while Catholic Charities in the recent past has estimated the Burmese community in Fort Wayne between 5,000 to 6,000 people, Chan said he believes the census total is a more accurate current count.
St. Joseph Community Health Foundation Executive Director Meg Distler was surprised by the census number and said she thinks its low. The foundations Catherine Kasper Place on South Calhoun Street houses the Burmese Advocacy Center, an organization created several years ago in response to the growing communitys need.
Distler said leaders within the Burmese community she spoke to still believe the number could be as high as 7,000; shes not convinced census workers were able to overcome some hurdles – specifically a fear of government authority, minority pride and illiteracy.
What many Americans loosely call Burmese refugees and immigrants actually refer to people from different ethnic regions within the country of Myanmar, as it is called by its ruling military junta. Those people have for thousands of years identified with their minority groups – Karen, Mon, Chin, for example – and not Burmese, Distler said.
The census does have a category for other Asian minorities; in Allen County, 750 people checked those boxes. If most of those people are from Myanmar, they could bring the countys total closer to 4,500.
Burmas oppressive military rule leads to another challenge. Distler said many Burmese who fled the country were active in pro-democracy movements and may not feel comfortable sharing revealing personal information with the government if given a choice.
The 2000 census recorded the U.S. Burmese population at about 17,000; the national data for 2010 has not been released.
In any case, Fort Wayne, for a few years thought to have the largest concentration of Burmese refugees, may find that designation in jeopardy.
Indianapolis saw its own influx of refugees even as Fort Waynes slowed; the 2010 census places Marion Countys Burmese population just behind Allen Countys at 3,671 people.