Editor's note: The News-Sentinel's Steve Linsenmayer visited the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand in January 2006. See The News-Sentinel's Burma project at www.burmafortwayne.com.
The Fort Wayne Catholic Charities office usually closes at noon Friday. For Nyein Chan and his resettlement staff, the day isn't even half over.
“Refugee development is just starting,” says Nyein Chan, director of the department. Taking a quick lunch break at his desk, he ponders his day. Already, he has met with 17 newly arrived refugees from Burma, and two more families are coming in at 10:30 this night. Between now and then, he and others need to pick up furniture and groceries for the arriving families, plus check that their apartments are ready. Last night, and the night before, he also went to the airport to pick up arriving families.
It's not an unusual day, at least not for the next three months.
About 300 refugees from the Thai-Burma border will resettle in Fort Wayne this year, more than twice as many as last year. The bulk of them will arrive by the end of September.
“It is an extremely large amount of people,” said Deb Schmidt, executive director of Catholic Charities. “It's a tremendous amount of work, and they're all coming in so fast.”
Anticipating the increase, Catholic Charities has hired additional staff in the last few months. Fortunately, Schmidt said, the burden does not rest on the resettlement department alone. “Every person who works in this agency is aware of what's going on and doing what they can to help,” she said.
Last year, 127 refugees came here from Tham Hin, a refugee camp where conditions are rapidly deteriorating. This year, that movement continues. In addition, another camp called Mae La, the largest on the border, is sending 16,000 people to the United States, also by the end of September.
“Even now, Homeland Security people are in Mae La screening people,” Nyein Chan said. “Right now, I have in my mailbox another 38 families.”
Mae La camp, seven hours' drive north of Bangkok, Thailand, is less than a mile from the Burmese border. About 51,000 people fill the overgrown village, a half-mile wide by three miles long. Conditions there are as good as they get for refugees in the region. Water and food are plentiful at the camp, which is supported by various nongovernmental organizations and administered by a committee of Karen refugees, the majority population in the camp.
People in Burma's Karen State have been involved in the longest-running armed resistance in the world. British rule in Burma ended soon after World War II. In 1948, the Karen, one of dozens of ethnic groups in Burma, began a battle for their independence that continues today.
Most camp residents have been at Mae La for more than 10 years, some for much longer, left homeless by strife on the Burmese side of the border. The adjustment required in moving to the United States cannot be overstated. Not only are people leaving their homeland behind, they are entering another world that operates very differently from life in Asia, much less inside a refugee camp.
Catholic Charities Resettlement Case Manager Aung Naing Tun arranges weekly orientation sessions for new refugees in Fort Wayne. As clients and staffers gather in a conference room, he sits down to sign disbursement vouchers with checks for each family or individual. The one-time payment of $425 per person is intended to cover living expenses — rent, groceries and utilities — for 90 days. The search for a job, likely in manufacturing, will start as soon as possible.
It's almost 9 a.m. Nyein Chan brings in a pot of coffee, pours a cup for himself and heads to the front of the room. He has been here before. Like several members of his staff, he was a refugee from Burma, arriving in Fort Wayne in the mid-1990s.
He opens the meeting with a Karen-language video produced by the Department of State. Speaking in Burmese (everyone here today understands the language, otherwise a Karen translator would be used), he starts to explain the dozens of things the refugees will need to know to get their lives started in this country.
Some are official, bureaucratic necessities: knowing where to go, who to ask for and what sort of help is available. Other lessons are more unique.
“They're all afraid of police in (Burma),” explains Nyein Chan. That's not surprising, considering that in totalitarian Burma almost any contact with law enforcement can lead to trouble.
“I tell them they pay for the police and need to call them in an emergency.”
The words “individualism” and “self-sufficiency,” spoken in English, stand out from the stream of Burmese when Nyein Chan speaks. These 17 refugees must learn English. They must know their Social Security numbers. Nyein Chan tells them that very soon, they will be expected to function on their own. He tells them that successfully coping with their new situation will benefit them, and others, including Catholic Charities.
“I explain to them, today, someone is going to be newer than you,” said Nyein Chan. His staff will not be able to spend extra time helping established families with everyday needs, since new arrivals are coming in such a steady flow. The staff will keep in touch with monthly visits, but the families need to quickly learn how to function in their alien environment. He tells them others are depending on their success.
“Their self-sufficiency indirectly benefits the people still living in the refugee camps,” Nyein Chan said. If a community adapts well, he said, officials are more likely to accept more people from the same group. He encourages them to maintain their own culture here, but reminds them of how important it is that they adapt to their new home.
“Since they agreed to come to the United States, they have to agree to learn American culture,” he said.
After lunch and after filling a pickup and a minivan full of furniture for that evening's arrivals, Nyein Chan checks out an apartment that he plans to rent for one of families coming in this evening.
He's not happy.
The hallway entrance smells bad, and it's not much better inside. The rug, recently vacuumed, is heavily stained. The kitchen is in disrepair. It won't do.
Aung Naing Tun makes a phone call to the landlord, and an alternative is found in a different complex. The group convoys about a mile away to check the new possibility. Previous tenants have recently left. The apartment is in decent shape but needs to be cleaned.
Nyein Chan decides the family can spend the next couple of nights with relatives in Fort Wayne before moving in.
But it's only eight hours before they are to arrive, and groceries still need to be bought. So the furniture is unloaded into the apartment before Aung Naing Tun heads for the grocery store and Nyein Chan heads back to the office to file paperwork.
He hopes to finish in time to rest before the evening's flight arrives and the cycle begins again.
Burmese in Fort Wayne
Fort Wayne has the most Burmese refugees — about 3,000 — in the United States. Aided by the local Catholic Charities and Friends of Burma, they began moving here after a pro-democracy uprising in Burma was put down in 1988 by the ruling military junta.