My great grandfather, Alfons DeKoninck, came to the United States from Belgium in 1912 through Ellis Island aboard the ill-fated RMS Lusitania. I've heard stories ever since I was a child about the sacrifices he made coming alone to northeast Indiana to begin life anew.
I continue to see the sacrifices, struggles and successes my immigrant friends experience today. If someone were to ask me who my personal heroes are, I'd tell them in a heartbeat any immigrant or refugee who's carved a new path for themselves in the United States. Amid significant culture shock, the newcomer to-do list is exhausting, including everything from learning English to finding gainful employment to securing adequate housing to enrolling children in schools to navigating city streets to finding culturally amenable food and more. But I'm grateful newcomers tackle these challenges, as our community wouldn't be what it is today without its continued immigrant legacy.
Our glacial past made Fort Wayne a summit city, leaving behind ample waterways and fertile lands attracting indigenous peoples for more than 10,000 years. The French, English and Americans eventually found this area appealing, adding to a growing cultural milieu. Immigration increased rapidly after Indiana statehood in 1816 when land and labor opportunities brought thousands of Germans and Irish to the area. At the turn of the20th century, a German-speaking majority dominated nearly all aspects of daily life in Fort Wayne, and after both world wars, hundreds of Italians, Romanians and Macedonians settled here. Hispanics, largely of Mexican and Cuban origin, immigrated to Fort Wayne – a trend continuing into the early 2000s. And, over the past 40 years, refugees from the Mideast, Eastern Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia have resettled here, changing community demographics further.
Today, it's estimated 7.7 percent of Fort Wayne's residents are foreign-born, and 11.3 percent speak a language other than English in their homes. Not accounted for in the census, but equally important, are an estimated 4,500 Muslims, 800 Jewish adherents, 55 Sikh families, 3,000 Amish,2,000 Haitians and 7,500 Burmese living in the area. Fort Wayne Community Schools is another gauge of this community's diversity with 8 percent of a 31,000-student population classified as English language learners, representing 79 languages. In fact, South Side High School has a minority enrollment of 74 percent and is one of the most diverse public high schools in Indiana. And, this year, Northcrest Elementary was found to be the most diverse elementary school in Indiana with another six elementary schools in Fort Wayne represented in the top 25.
A rich history in multiculturalism wouldn't have been possible without assistance from church and benevolent organizations. So, it's most fitting that Welcoming Fort Wayne found its home with Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County in 2016. Rooted in the national Welcoming America effort that helps communities create more welcoming infrastructures for immigrant populations, Welcoming Fort Wayne supports immigrant integration through strategic partnerships. Another goal of Welcoming Fort Wayne is to raise awareness about the newcomer population. Earlier this year, a yard sign with the message “You are welcome here” translated into the three most-spoken languages outside English in Fort Wayne – Spanish, Burmese and Arabic – became our first awareness campaign. To date, there have been two yard sign productions and more than 750 window clings made. Area schools, universities, businesses, nonprofits, churches, residences and personal vehicles proudly display this welcoming message around town.
Fort Wayne wouldn't be the community it is if it weren't for diverse peoples coming together for thousands of years. Most of us are here because someone like my great-grandfather made a courageous journey to start over in a foreign land. This is a vital part of our shared story, and we're a stronger community for it. While newcomers are attributed to spurring economic growth in fading Rust Belt regions such as Michiana, their contributions go beyond economics; they make communities vibrant. Various festivals and cultural celebrations in Fort Wayne showcase this vibrancy annually, attracting many wanting to reconnect or connect with something different.
Whether coming to the Fort Wayne area by choice or resettling here courtesy of the U.S. Department of State, immigrant fortitude will always inspire me. Cultural diversity has long been our status quo. Ignoring this fact is a rejection of our community's history and dishonors those who've called and continue to call Fort Wayne home.
Melissa A. Rinehart, a Fort Wayne resident, is an applied anthropologist and works as an educator, researcher, author, consultant and community advocate. With the support of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, she's leading the effort for Welcoming Fort Wayne.