'Those who perceive a cooling of the American “melting pot” may believe their fears have been justified by Saturday's recognition ceremony for 96 Burmese high school graduates.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We are Burmese, but we are diverse,” said Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of Fort Wayne's Burmese Advocacy Center, which represents refugees of various ethnic groups (such as Mon, Chin and Karen), religions (mostly Buddhist, Christian and Muslim) and school districts (primarily Fort Wayne and East Allen County). “This is our first year doing this, and only one group is not here.
“The point is that we are melting. This is the beginning of (Burmese) working together.”
Whether the results ultimately live up to the ideal remains to be seen, of course, but the value of the exercise was not lost on those who participated.
“It's good to honor our students, who are often looked down upon by people who don't think we graduate,” said Lun Thang, who attended Woodlan Jr.-Sr. High School.
“This will encourage our siblings to do better (in school),” added Daung Nwe Aye, a Northrop graduate who was one of the speakers Saturday – in Burmese as well as excellent English.
Those able to see “diversity” only in the most superficial, obvious way would have noticed very little as one Burmese student after another crossed the floor of the lecture hall at IPFW to receive a handshake and a congratulatory plaque. But that's Minn Myint Nan Tin's very point: Members of Fort Wayne's large population of refugees from what is now called Myanmar – about 5,000 families, she estimated – are distinct in ways not so easily noticed, unless you get to know them as individuals.
Just like the rest of the population, in other words.
And so the Burmese Advocacy Center brought the various ethnic and religious groups together to honor the achievement of their graduates, to share food and music and to meet with representatives of colleges, universities and prospective employers.
It was, in fact, a reflection of how other new immigrants have risen from poverty to prosperity: through the education, hard work and mutual support that enables individuals to venture from their ethnic cocoons into the society at large, where more-visible forms of cultural blending continue.
“We have to feed our own families first,” Minn Myint Tin said – reflecting an inward focus some might consider clannish, even selfish. But that would be unfair. After all, if more people were determined to take care of themselves, their families and their communities, the federal government would be the refuge of last resort, not the first – and wouldn't be $15 trillion in debt.
It's mostly symbolic, to be sure, but contrast Saturday's event with the well-publicized incident two years ago when a convenience-store employee posted a “No Burmese allowed” sign on the door after a customer spit – or worse – on the floor. The company ultimately agreed to a $2,500 settlement that paid for events designed to foster cross-cultural awareness.
Saturday afternoon, in what was in every important way a quintessentially American event, it was clear progress has been made since the first wave of Burmese refugees arrived here in the 1990s.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the lives of young people like Duang New Aye and Lun Thang, both 18, who instead of being deterred by life's challenges have overcome and perhaps even been motivated by them.
Both will be pre-med students at IPFW this fall.
As I said, it's an innately American story – even when it's told in Burmese.