FORT WAYNE, Indiana—Eight thousand miles separate Southeast Asia from the American Midwest, but when Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi visits an Indiana city on Tuesday, it will be a kind of homecoming.
Fort Wayne, home to one of the United States’ largest Burmese populations, has become an unlikely base for opposition to the country’s former military regime.
Here, Suu Kyi’s followers meet regularly, criticizing what’s happening in their homeland through Voice of America broadcasts and YouTube videos, lobbying Congress for continued economic sanctions and raising money for the opposition in Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
“They cannot talk in there, so we talk for them here,” said Thiha Ba Kyi, 57, a former dentist who earned an MBA after coming to the US in 1994 and now hosts a weekly Burmese-language talk show on local television. “We are very staunch and very outspoken. … I believe that’s why Suu Kyi come here.”
The visit by the 67-year-old Nobel laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing military rule, marks the zenith of a two-decade influx of Burmese refugees that has brought a new global awareness to Fort Wayne, a city of 256,000 people two hours north of Indianapolis.
Since 1991, when a single Burmese refugee resettled here, thousands more have followed, many of them relocating under a federal program after years in refugee camps in Thailand. They join other political refugees from a host of countries who have made the city a second home since the fall of Saigon in 1975, thanks largely to the help of Catholic Charities.
The 2010 census found 3,800 Burmese in Allen County, where Fort Wayne is located, but Fred Gilbert, a retired welfare worker who now runs a website designed to help immigrants adjust to American life, says the number may be actually be a few thousand higher because some Burmese identify themselves by ethnic origin rather than nationality.
Many of those residents are expected to turn out when Suu Kyi speaks to a crowd expected to number more than 7,000 Tuesday at Memorial Coliseum. The visit is part of a 17-day trip to the US during which she has met with President Barack Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Signs welcoming her have been showing up throughout the city. Local students gathered recently to make flags depicting the fighting peacock that appears on the flag of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
“She is the hope for the people,” said Ba Kyi, who now works for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and helps the Burmese opposition in exile. “She can bring democracy again in Burma.”
For many of the city’s Burmese residents, Suu Kyi’s visit will be the first tangible connection in years, even decades, with the homeland some hope to return to one day.
Many, like Ba Kyi, left behind careers when they fled their homeland and have had to learn new skills to get a job. Tun Oo , who chairs the local welcoming committee for Suu Kyi’s visit, was elected to Parliament in the 1990 election won by Suu Kyi’s party that was nullified by the military regime and served as finance minister for the elected government in exile.
“I’m finance minister in the jungle,” he said with a laugh. “Jungle minister.”
Now Tun Oo, who was a construction engineer in Asia, works in a Fort Wayne factory. When he’s not working, he heads the local branch of Suu Kyi’s party.
“We see people who were university professors and Members of Parliament who are very accomplished who are doing all kinds of work,” said Tom Lewandowski, president of the AFL-CIO’s labor council. “They’ll do what it takes to get by.”
Refugees qualify for federal government assistance, but Meghan Menchhofer, a staffer at the Burmese Advocacy Center, said that while many newcomers rely on food stamps, only a handful accept cash welfare. The center, which is funded by federal grants and private donations, helps refugees find jobs and homes and navigate issues from laws and customs to getting a driver’s license.
“It was different. Vastly different. I knew very little English,” said May Ayar Oo, 26, who came to the US at age 16. She graduated in the top five in her high school class and now works as an engineer while attending graduate school.
Patrick Proctor, a member of the board of directors at the Burmese Advocacy Center, said some people in Fort Wayne harbor a negative stereotype of the Burmese who live there. About two years ago, some of that prejudice came to light when a worker at a coin-operated laundry posted a sign barring Burmese “for sanitary reasons,” apparently a reference to some people’s habit of spitting out the residue from chewing betel nuts.
But many of the city’s Burmese seem to have found their way. Burmese-run businesses have popped up across the city, and both the valedictorian and salutatorian at a local high school this year were Burmese.
Former Buddhist monk Nai Sike, 48, and his wife operate a Burmese grocery, one of several in town.
Sike said he would like to stay in the United States because of his business, but he might go back to visit Burma. Like the other Indiana Burmese, he is excited about Suu Kyi’s visit.
“It’s good she’s coming here, because of democracy,” he said through a translator.
Those attending Tuesday’s speech will be eager to hear Suu Kyi’s views on sanctions toward Burma. Since her release in 2010, she has joined hands with members of the former ruling junta that detained her to push ahead with political reform. She is under pressure from Burmese President Thien Sein’s government to press the US to remove the restrictions.
Ba Kyi wants to be a part of the change Suu Kyi is expected to bring. He said he wants to teach his people, who have no experience of freedom, what democracy is about.
“I would like to move back,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll need educated people who have experience in a democratic country.”