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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, February 05, 2017 10:00 pm

Threads in the American tapestry

Ye Win Latt

President Donald Trump’s executive order to limit refugee entry to the United States could further shrink Fort Wayne’s new refugee intake to virtually none. Fort Wayne has already reduced new refugee arrivals to just a few hundred since 2011. Some might find this move appealing in the name of national security and national interest. But, haven’t hundreds of thousands of refugees in the U.S. contributed to the security, interest and well-being of this great nation? There are many refugee stories around the nation that have proven as much.

When it comes to refugee stories, Fort Wayne doesn’t have to look any further. This city of faith is known to have welcoming hearts to refugees from various part of the world and from many war zones. While Burmese might be the city’s largest refugee population, Fort Wayne also has Vietnamese, Sudanese, Somali, Bosnian and Iraqi refugees who could be traced to as early as 1975.

Look at a big picture of the Burmese community in Fort Wayne, the most recent and visible refugee population in the city. Settling and integrating refugees into American communities was a big challenge, from health to education, employment to transportation. But now, about about $1 million in the weekly gross paychecks (or $52 million of annual household income) of 2,000 Burmese full-time employees is an indicator that these non-English speaking formal refugees are on their feet within a few years and contributing to the local economy. These incomes are going to paying taxes, housing, insurance, grocery shopping, utility bills, etc.

Refugees are not here to take away jobs from locals or to take over American businesses. They are additional contributors to the workforce in a growing economy.

Just a few years ago, employers such as Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS, National Beef, etc. from Delaware to Nebraska came to Fort Wayne to recruit employees from refugee community. Hanging live birds on the running belt or taking out animals’ intestines are certainly not a dream job for anyone. But many refugees in Fort Wayne have such jobs as their first experience in America.

Refugees are not brought in to do dirty jobs or to add to the blue-collar workforce. What the refugee community has to offer is a highly motivated and reliable labor force, and a booster of economic activities.

Even refugee community from a developing country such as Burma has highly educated individuals, with many moe in the making. Fort Wayne and East Allen schools have great stories to tell about the success of refugee students such as Fatima Irdiss, Fareda Ma, Ei Ei Oo and Esther Vel making the top 10 at North Side High School, or Sa Are, who is among the first class to earn a college degree through East Allen University.

Service men and women in the United States armed forces such as Min Soemoe, Thae Ohu and Thandar Thet are proud descendants of refugee parents and good sons and daughters of Fort Wayne. It is not so surprising to see refugee children are eager to join the armed forces to protect the nation that gave their parents a second chance to dream big. Is this not how the American spirit was born?

The story of Fort Wayne’s Burmese refugees is not a unique one. Somalian, Syrian, Afghan, Palestinen, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese and many more refugee community across the nation share similar stories. What is unique about refugees is that their horrific past cultivated a deeper appreciation of American values.

Asian, Arab, Black, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, physician, academic, laborer – refugees are regular human beings who are fleeing war, persecution and political upheaval. They seek refuge – refuge from fear, refuge from uncertainty.

It took only a few moments of a horrific act that destroyed their homes and crushed their dreams, but it takes several years of struggles to be able to dream again. Refugees hide days and nights, walk hundreds of miles, live in camps for years and additional 18 to 24 months of the resettlement process before being able to start on a plan to start a new life. Shutting the door on them is not the America the world knew in the past.