Burmese community grows

Anna Sung Tial had never seen snow. Tial, a sophomore international business major, said that she used to play without her parents worrying where she was and used to walk everywhere, as did all of her friends and neighbors, because no one really needed a car.

Sophomore Anna Sung Tial came to the United States as a refugee when she was 12, and now she studies international business at UIndy.
Sophomore Anna Sung Tial came to the United States as a refugee when she was 12, and now she studies international business at UIndy.

But that was back in Burma, Tial said, before she, her mother and siblings moved more than 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. That was before they had to run through the jungle to escape into Malaysia and load into a minivan packed with a dozen other people. That was before they boarded a plane and landed in the midwest United States among people with a completely different language and culture. That was before they moved from Battle Creek, Mich., where the U.S. government settled them, to Indianapolis, where a community of many Burmese ethnic groups was already flourishing.

That was before a lot of things for more than 115,000 refugees from Burma, including Tial, who have legally immigrated to the United States over the past decade and are now at various stages of integrating into American society. The University of Indianapolis is trying to help with this process, so students can succeed in school and in life.

Elaisa Vahnie, director of the Burmese American Community Institute, said that more than 15,000 of those refugees have ended up in Indiana. According to Vahnie, about 5,000 live in Fort Wayne, a few live in Nora and South Bend and about 10,000 live on the South side of Indianapolis, specifically in Perry Township.

According to Vahnie, the local government and residents have been very welcoming and understanding of cultural differences. He said that through a partnership with UIndy, BACI is developing tools to help speed the process and seeing more young people go to and succeed in college.

“It is a challenge; we know that. But this is also the opportunity we can come together and assist this community, so they can become contributing citizens wherever they are a part of,” he said. “And we are grateful to the people of Indiana, hoosiers, for their generosity. … Refugees will continue to thrive, will continue to give back to the community.”

Persecution and the past

According to Vahnie, the situation in Burma, which is officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, has been an ongoing struggle ever since the country declared independence from British rule in 1948. Since then, he said, the country has seen multiple governments toppled.

Many different ethnic groups live in Burma, including the Chin, Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Rhakine, Shan and Mon.  However, the Burman ethnic group, which comprises nearly 70 percent of the population, controls the country.

According to Vahnie, the Chin are mostly Christian, while the most popular religion in Burma is Buddhism, so the government’s ethnic cleansing policies target them.

“It’s really deeply rooted in the ethnic conflicts, which started even before the independence, basically between the Burman and Karen. So after the independence, it continued this pattern of the military being used to persecute or deprive the rights of ethno-minorities, including the Karen or Chin, I can say, up to today,” he said. “So that is why people flee from Burma.”

Tial said that she was young when she left Burma, but she still despises the government, because of  how it dictated to the minorities and tried to intimidate them. She said that the Burmese refugees will not call their home country Myanmar, but some go even further.

“Although since we’re from Burma, we’re supposed to be called Burmese,” she said. “But since we don’t like the government, that’s why we call ourselves Chin.”

According to Vahnie, of the 115,000 refugees that have come to the United States, approximately 40,000 are Chin and 50,000 Karen, with the rest made up of almost every other ethnic group, including Burman.

In Indianapolis, most of the refugees are Chin. However, Vahnie said that his organization encourages diversity and inclusiveness, so that no one is discriminated against for any reason.

“In short, yes, Chin are the majority, 80 percent in central Indiana,” he said. “But it is still very diverse, representative of almost all ethnic groups in Burma.”

To Jane Gelhausen, director of International and Cultural Affairs for the mayor’s office, this growing diversity is just another way Indianapolis is tied to the rest of the world.

“We’re just so globally connected, and that wasn’t the case decades ago, but that’s the case today,” she said. “Mayor Ballard is very passionate about making sure that our city is advancing on a global level.”

Gelhausen said that she helps organize conferences for the city’s resettlement agencies, Exodus Refugee Immigration and Catholic Charities, and helps them get more grants.

“Those two organizations would be responsible for picking them up at the airport, settling them into an apartment, helping them to find a job, getting their kids enrolled, providing orientation on a number of topics…” she said. “They cover topics from the very basics to the long-term goal of helping them become U.S. citizens.”

However, Gelhausen said that the new refugees probably receive as much support from the close to 25 Burmese church communities, grocery stores, restaurants and other refugee-operated businesses and organizations on the South side.

According to Vahnie, the U.S. government initially decided to send refugees to Indiana because a small community of Burmese refugees, rooted in higher education, already existed here. He said that it started when a distant relative of his, who left Burma many years ago seeking political asylum, came to the state in the 1990s and started a program with Indiana University. Beginning in 1996, he said, the program brought about five students each year to IU for intensive English training; -then the students could apply to colleges.

In 2003, Vahnie first came to the United States to participate in the program. Afterwards he earned a degree at IU. Since then, he has been a proponent of education, which he believes is the best tool to advance the community.

“Education is the most important thing for everything, politically—societal change and economic sustainability,” he said. “Education is the key.”

Education and the future

Director of Community Programs Marianna Foulkrod oversees the university’s partnership with BACI and instructs the UIndy students who volunteer with the organization as a part of their service learning.

She said that she first became aware of the Burmese community simply by living on the South side, at times when she would take her daughter to get vaccinations or sign up for school.

As a sociologist,  Foulkrod said that she wanted to understand what implications this influx of refugees had on UIndy as part of the community.

“I sat down and thought to myself, how can I educate my students at the University of Indianapolis about this social change?” she said. “… From all the partnerships that we have, we somehow got connected with the Burmese-American Community Institute.”

According to Foulkrod, the 15 or so UIndy students who work with BACI have helped tutor Burmese students at Southport High School and helped write a guide to living in the United States by compiling feedback from community leaders, employers and residents.

Vahnie said that the English version of the guide is finished, but he is still working to translate it into Burmese and Chin.

Tial said that starting out in middle school helped her, because she was able learn English before the course work got even more challenging.  However, she said that trying to complete assignments while learning the language they were written in was very difficult.

“I tried to look at the dictionary, but translating everything, it doesn’t make sense in Chin, too,” she said. “So sometimes I would cry, because it’s like I really wanted to finish the homework and get a good grade, but I couldn’t.”

According to Tial, she still has a few issues with language sometimes, but that has not stopped her. She said that some of her friends were discouraged and decided not to go college, if they even finished high school.

“There are a few friends who decided not to go to college, because they are not proficient enough in English or they have to support their family,” she said. “Because they can’t find a good job, at least two or three people have to work in a family to support themselves.”

Vahnie said that many refugees work in low-skill, labor-intensive jobs at warehouses and factories, even if they earned college degrees back in Burma, and the only way to change that is through higher education.

Vahnie said that he has seen a jump in the number of students deciding to go to college. According to Vahnie, only 20 percent of high school graduates from the Burmese community in Perry Township decided to go to college in 2010, but last year the number grew to 57 percent.

“We are very pleased to see that notable rising number of college-going rates among the students,” he said.

For the past two summers, BACI has hosted the Upward College Scholars Program at UIndy, and in 2012 Tial was able to take part in it.

“We are very lucky that we are close to the University of Indianapolis,” Vahnie said. “And I can see a lot of opportunities where we can work together to contribute to the development of this community.”

Foulkrod said that she believes plenty of work is still left to help the recently arrived refugees, as well as those still to come. She said that the university has received an AmeriCorp planning grant and she is working to create a program for UIndy students that would further serve the refugee community in the area.

“Given that our president is all about—a large part of the Vision 2030 is about—the development of the South side, this complements that vision,” she said.

According to Foulkrod, this is an opportunity for faculty, staff and administrators just as much as it is for students, because this group of people is in the university’s metaphorical backyard.

And with about 1,000 refugees arriving every year, Foulkrod said, we as a community cannot afford to ignore the challenges and opportunities until it is too late.

“One day, we’re going to have 30,000 refugees,”  she said.  “And people are going to wake up.”