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Last updated: Sat. Mar. 13, 2010 - 10:45 am EDT

Assimilation crucial for Fort Wayne's Burmese

Lessons to be learned from recent sign incident.

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The “No Burmese allowed” sign recently removed from a south-side business drew an immediate, heartfelt and appropriate rebuke, even from the store's owner, precisely because it was reminiscent of an unfortunate era most people would rather forget.

But what happened at Ricker's laundry on South Calhoun Street was, in one very important sense, vastly different than the segregation to which African Americans were subjected: Where Jim Crow sought to exclude certain people because of hatred and perceived racial superiority, the employee who posted the sign sought to exclude an entire group on the basis of improper behavior by certain individuals.

If righteous indignation over the sign is allowed to obscure that point, Fort Wayne's Burmese population will have been minimized yet again.

Nyein Chan knows that as well as anyone. As a Burmese refugee who came to Fort Wayne in 1994, he is living proof that people from diverse cultures can and do assimilate into Fort Wayne's mainstream and find success. But as Catholic Charities' resettlement director, he also knows the speedy “Americanization” of new immigrants is crucial to assuring their ultimate acceptance and prosperity.

Catholic Charities Executive Director Debbie Schmidt, meanwhile, knows that process can be slowed – to the detriment of immigrants and community alike – when the influx becomes too big to manage.

Do numbers alone explain the behavior that prompted the employee's blatantly illegal sign? Probably not. As Schmidt noted, the number of Burmese settled directly in Fort Wayne with her organization's help last year was 235 – about 600 fewer than in 2008 and about 400 fewer than in 2007. The previous years' high refugee counts, she said, did overload Fort Wayne's ability to accommodate them. That's one reason she and others asked the federal government to slow the influx.

Chan expects fewer than 300 Burmese refugees to be settled here this year, although others may move to Fort Wayne after being settled somewhere else.

Despite the smaller numbers, however, Schmidt said more-recent refugees have tended to be less educated than earlier arrivals – which might help explain behavior such as spitting the juice from betel nuts on the floor, which can leave a red residue. That was included on signs that replaced the “For sanitary reasons, there are no Burmese people allowed” one. Some behavior attributed to Burmese refugees has been even more unsanitary.

In one respect, it may be unfair to begrudge Burmese some activities popular in their culture. After all, it wasn't very long ago that spittoons and “no spitting signs” were a common sight around Fort Wayne. It took decades for tobacco-spitting to fall out of favor; newly arriving refugees do not have that luxury of time.

For that reason, the U.S. State Department generally makes sure they receive a three-day orientation session about life in America even before leaving the refugee camps, which are mostly in Thailand. Those directed to Fort Wayne through Catholic Charities receive additional instruction on health, citizenship, public services, education, employment, laws and other aspects of life that are common to Americans but can be completely foreign to people who have never seen electricity or indoor plumbing.

The assimilation problems implied by the sign, and which Schmidt and others acknowledge, indicate the orientation process is at best incomplete. Schmidt said she'd like to see the federal program beefed up with such things as more emphasis on learning English – something complicated by the fact that many new arrivals “are not even literate in their own language.”

With as many as 6,000 Burmese now calling Fort Wayne home – believed to be the largest concentration in the U.S. – Schmidt said Fort Wayne has been both generous and welcoming. But, as Chan and Schmidt noted, each new immigrant group has had to struggle for acceptance. That struggle, as we have just seen, can be exacerbated by cultural clashes. If unresolved, it can also threaten the financial support that Catholic Charities and other groups need to help people of all ethnic groups.

The best thing for old and new residents alike, then, is for the federal government to continue to limit new arrivals to a manageable number – and for Washington and its local partners to beef up assimilation efforts.

“When in Rome …” has always been good advice for Americans traveling overseas. The reverse holds true as well.


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