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The Journal Gazette

  • Ye Htut Naing l Special to The Journal Gazette Burmese pay respect to their elders at the International Buddhist Association gathering on April 17, one of many Burmese-themed events around the city on that day.

  • Minn Nan Tin l Special to The Journal Gazette Burmese women take part in a traditional Thaingyan dance during the celebration of the water festival and the Burmese New Year at Mon Buddhist Temple.

  • A Burmese womanwaits for her blood pressure result at the Burmese Muslim Youth fundraiser and health event. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016 10:00 pm

Little Burma -getting bigger

Ye Win Latt

The Burmese community in Fort Wayne is religiously and ethnically diverse. Faith-based community institutions have highly influenced the community; the Burmese community has established six Buddhist temples, three mosques and at least five church congregations.

April 17 offered an interesting mix of activities in the Burmese community. Several hundred Burmese gathered at the International Buddhist Association on Hanna Street to celebrate Burma’s famous water festival and new year. Just a few blocks away, the Mon community celebrated the same at Mon Buddhist Temple on Decatur Road. Children and young adults played with water under the bright sun while adults were chatting, eating, singing and dancing all day long – a scene that reflects the image of Burma.

On the other side of Anthony Boulevard, Burmese Muslim youths hosted a fundraiser and a health fair in coordination with Manchester University’s Muslim Healthcare Professionals.

Two weddings the same day also attracted out-of-state guests. Additionally, hundreds of Chin and Karen families gathered at churches.

Everyone was busy doing their own things. A lot of activities were going on the same day.

That is why Fort Wayne has been known as "Little Burma." Now, it’s getting bigger.

Twenty-five years after the first immigrant arrived, there are about 8,000 Burmese in Fort Wayne – climbing to five digits soon. Many have already become U.S. citizens and registered to vote. While the  newcomer headcount has significantly declined since 2011, Catholic Charities is still bringing few families every month. The largest additions are secondary immigrants who relocated to Fort Wayne after settling elsewhere. This actually makes the head count difficult to track.

With the economy improving, jobs are not hard to find. Many Burmese families have already bought a house. There are about 500 Burmese homeowners across the city, at least 3,000 vehicles, and a few apartment complexes are filled with Burmese tenants. At least $1 million in the weekly gross paychecks of about 2,000 Burmese full-time employees is a huge contribution to the local economy.

More than 20 grocery stores, four restaurants, two beauty salons, two IT and computer repair services, two auto repair services and a car dealer, plus many other businesses, are scattered all over the city. There are also additions to businesses, as well as many Burmese advancing in their careers to managers, supervisors, bankers, mortgage officers, travel agents, tax preparers, etc. This is a sign that the Burmese community is growing and improving. This is more visible among the younger generation.

Some ambitious students have set their career goals and aimed high already. There are some Burmese nurses in local hospitals. Within less than a decade, there will be a few Burmese doctors and professionals.

While elders are trying to preserve their tradition and struggling for a living, the younger generation is quickly acclimating to the local community.

They speak English as if it’s their first language. English is spoken at playgrounds. The Burmese language or any subdialects are hardly spoken among youths. The issue of the language barrier has started to fade away.

Just five years ago, parents were so proud that their kids had started picking up English. Now, children with fluent Burmese make their parents proud. But many elders still speak little to no English.

Twenty-five years is a long time but, considering that the majority of Burmese came within the last decade, the transition is smooth and quick.

Thanks to the Burmese Advocacy Center and many community organizations stepping in, this transition went more smoothly. It’s not just the population that makes the community bigger, but the effort that many stakeholders contributed to the city’s newest community.

Now, the establishment of a friendship city agreement with Burma’s city of Mawlamyine ties Fort Wayne closer to Burma. Fort Wayne will continue to be an important city for the Burmese.