A former refugee from Burma, Nyein Chan knows what it’s like to adjust to a new place—not just in Fort Wayne, but in the United States. He knows what it takes to build a life here from scratch.
That’s why, for the past 25 years, Chan has worked for Catholic Charities as Director of Resettlement Services for the national organization, helping other immigrants and refugees make the transition to life in Northeast Indiana and the U.S.
For years, Fort Wayne has been welcoming families and individuals from around the world seeking refuge from war-torn and hostile environments. So what has the process looked like historically, and how is it evolving? Where do refugees find housing in Fort Wayne, and what is needed to help them assimilate and prosper here?
The story is complex, fragmented, and ever-changing, as recent events, like Russia’s war in Ukraine, push more populations across the globe to seek asylum.
Regardless of where refugees come from, Chan says the needs they have when they arrive in Fort Wayne are relatively consistent across the board, including shelter, education or employment, and assistance adjusting to their new community.
Housing is the first and most important step of the resettlement process, as schooling for children cannot begin without a residential address, and employment can be difficult to acquire. One of the largest refugee populations in Fort Wayne is the Burmese community. In 2007, NPR reported that Fort Wayne welcomed 3500 Burmese refugees. By 2016 the number had grown to more than 6,000.
South East Fort Wayne, specifically, is home to much of the city’s Burmese population. Ewelina Conolly of Amani Family Services points out that South East was designated by the City of Fort Wayne (In 2007 and 2008) as the resettlement destination for these refugees. Documentations shared by Amani shows the zip code 46805, 46807, and 46806 as the majority of the population they serve with their services
“Many within the Burmese community have found housing in apartment complexes in Southwest Fort Wayne, such as Autumn Woods and Brendonwoods Apartments,” Conolly says.
Nicole Kurut, Mission Advancement Manager for Catholic Charities, says the affordability of housing and flexibility of landlords on the South East side of Fort Wayne has made it one of the most accessible places for the Burmese community to settle and grow.
There are unique setbacks faced by refugees in finding housing. This often includes a language barrier, a lack of resources, or not having the proper documentation for citizenship within the required timeline to qualify for and/or access safe, long-term housing. Since refugees often do not have documents, like pay stubs, social security cards, and bank statements, agencies, like Catholic Charities, make establishing relationships with landlords across the city an important part of their work.
“It’s up to the landlord’s discretion on all of those things, whether they’re willing to have good faith in their applicants,” Kurut says. “There are people willing to make different types of agreements that they wouldn’t necessarily usually do, but they understood the situation.”
As more refugees come to Fort Wayne—and with less time to prepare for them—the number of people who need housing in Fort Wayne is outpacing the number of landlords able or willing to rent to refugees.
“That’s why we need more landlords to help us,” Kurut says. Catholic Charities is open to working with different landlords who would like to provide and off opportunities for housing for refugees as recently finding homes for Afghan refugees proved challenging in the short window given.
As the Afghan crisis has unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 60 Afghan refugees (of the more than 7,000 total in Indiana) have been making a home for themselves in Fort Wayne from September to November of 2021. Kurut says these recent Afghan arrivals face additional challenges in finding housing due to the short window of notice given to Catholic Charities about their arrival.
Traditionally the agency is notified up to 30 days, giving them time to find housing for refugees. However, with recent arrivals, they have only been given a few day’s notice, if that.
“They came so fast, we were getting 24-hour’s notice,” Kurut says. “The Afghans were showing up so quickly that we didn’t have time to do housing projects. A lot of them were staying at hotels, or we had some temporary living space for them to stay at as well until we were able to find permanent housing.”
The Afghan global crisis is a unique situation that has forced the agency to work faster in finding homes. It’s also expanding where within Fort Wayne they settle refugees.
Kurut says her team is open to placing refugees in any part of the city.
“That’s why we need more landlords to help us,” she says. “We did venture out of the South East corridor and moved all around the city for the Afghans. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to continue to resettle people all around town.”
Chan says Catholic Charities does not determine where and when refugees will arrive in Fort Wayne, but they work to ensure refugees can sustain themselves after they have arrived.
“I work with the community to make sure available resources are used to help refugee arrivals,” he says. “We support their basic needs, from school enrollment to Visa programs. I also do the public education speaking about refugee resettlement to the local schools, universities, and other organizations that want to learn about the resettlement programs.”
In addition to the work done directly with refugees, Chan hosts quarterly community consultation meetings with several local officials, including local government, school systems, healthcare providers, volunteer organizations, and more to update them on the status of the refugee resettlement. He emphasizes the similarities and approaches to working to help those resettling from different backgrounds, with the only notable difference being the amount of work needed to accommodate many arrivals in a short time span.
The U.S., as a whole, has seen many shifts in public policy in the time that Chan has worked with refugees. He says the overall process has not changed greatly, but what does shift is the amount of work they have as the resettlement process slows. The city has seen fewer arrivals during the last six years said Chan. Only recently has this changed, as the Afghan crisis brought new refugees to the city.
“We have to meet with the local government, school system, healthcare system to discuss how many refugees we can accommodate, how many resources do we have,” Chan says.
These resources include housing, schools, food, and clothing. Once the number of resources and refugees is determined, Chan’s team helps connect those new to Fort Wayne with other refugees who are more established in the city, or people knowledgeable of their cultures.
Helping the Burmese community integrate
Over the years, Fort Wayne has developed robust—albeit isolated—Burmese community on the city’s South East side, where large groups of refugees were initially settled. This has attracted more Burmese refugees to relocate to Fort Wayne, VICE reports in 2017.
“Word spread back to Burma that Fort Wayne was the place to be in America and hundreds of refugees followed,” VICE reports.
Today, there is an abundance of Mosques, Burmese grocery stores, and restaurants in South East Fort Wayne. Even so, Raquel Kline, Director of Language Services Network (LSN) in Fort Wayne, notes that translating information into Burmese and reaching these residents with local news and information can be challenging. For one, many Burmese refugees come from conflicting cultural groups, which speak different languages, so while Burmese is a common language that most groups speak, it’s not necessarily their primary language, says Kline. On top of that most Burmese don’t read Burmese because it’s a complex language, and they were never taught to read.
Instead, they rely on word-of-mouth communication often from their workplaces, churches, or nearby families.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this communication gap between Fort Wayne and its Burmese residents came to a head and may have contributed to the higher spread of the disease in the 46806 and 46816 zip codes. Catholic Charities worked with the Allen County Health Department to help fill this gap by reaching out to refugee populations by word of mouth or videos, utilizing platforms like Facebook.
Input Fort Wayne reports that YinYin Moe, a Burmese translator and interpreter in Fort Wayne, says it’s not uncommon for neighbors and friends to come to her house for help with job applications and other tasks.
“They have a lot of difficulties accessing and understanding essential information,” she says.
Helping Afghan residents integrate
Terry Dougherty, a local volunteer with Catholic Charities, has worked closely with Afghan refugees since 2001 as an interpreter. He visited Atterbury to speak to Afghan refugees in 2021 and says some of the current challenges facing newly arrived refugees is how quickly they’re arriving. Previous refugees have been generally given six months to find housing and establish themselves; this window has been cut down to three months for new arrivals. Aaron Batt of the Department of Homeland Security says this is due both to the coronavirus pandemic and limited resettlement agency resources.
Once refugees have housing, the challenges often continue. Dougherty says the need for interpreters in medical fields and workplace skill identification remains high in Northeast Indiana. He says finding employment opportunities for many—even those who previously worked on military bases for the U.S.—has been difficult. Both language barriers and lack of residence delayed the ability for refugees to seek employment and find schooling for their children.
Part of the process involves finding translators who can speak refugees’ native languages. In recent months, Catholic Charities hired two Afghan speakers to serve incoming refugees. While the agency has sufficient translators for Burmese refugees, translators for the new Afghan arrivals were few and far between. While the two hires helped, Dougherty says more translators are needed to help integrate the refugees as part of the resettlement process.
This includes building a community where refugees can build connections and prosper.
Creating a culture of community-wide support
Amani Family Services is helping refugees feel more at home and obtain necessary services, like legal protection and victim care, in Fort Wayne.
As CEO, Connolly is originally from Poland. She says in 2021, Amani served 1,998 individuals through direct clinical services, including people from 28 countries, speaking 16 different languages. This includes more than 15,600 people through community outreach efforts, as well. In addition, Amani assisted 400 immigrants and refugees with registering and administering the COVID-19 vaccine.
Connolly says acquiring new grants to better assist the community is a large part of her current role. While the pandemic was challenging, it also opened new opportunities for acquiring grants and for fundraising, which helps Amani maintain and expand its services. For instance, in 2022 the organization received a $50,000 grant from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation to help develop a multicultural family justice center in Fort Wayne, a project being spearheaded by St Joe. Through this grant, additional translators and aids to refugees can work to help secure their needs and lessen the strain existing organizations feel due to limited resources. Connolly hopes this project will provide opportunities to build a stronger community within Fort Wayne for refugees.
Agencies like Catholic Charities and Amani work to not only integrate refugees, but contribute to the overall growth and economic vitality of the region, as well. Research shows that refugee resettlement can spur economic growth in cities. As more and more refugees call Fort Wayne home, this gives community leaders and employers an opportunity to make the city a cultural haven in more ways than one.
Chan says that, as Fort Wayne has grown, he has witnessed growing acceptance among local residents of living near and interacting with refugees. But continuous work is needed to keep integrating these populations, both spatially and socially.
“The local community is required to integrate the people who are coming—to understand their culture and respect their story, why they are here, why they are no longer able to live in their home country, why they left their family members and their loved ones,” Chan says.
Chan says refugee resettlement cannot be done by agencies and organizations alone. Without community involvement and collaboration, resettlement won’t be successful.
“Integration is not just one-sided,” Chan says.
To help Fort Wayne become a more welcoming community, Amani has become a host of Welcoming Fort Wayne, a chapter of the national Welcoming America initiative.
“We are celebrating cultural diversity in individuals, organizations, and businesses that have a significant impact creating a more welcoming community from a cultural perspective,” Connolly says.
Welcome Week this year took place Sept. 10-16 to recognize and connect refugees and immigrants with Fort Wayne’s broader community. This year’s theme for the week was “belonging,” and plans included a collaboration with Cinema Center to celebrate and discuss “belonging” through film. In the future, Amani hopes to turn Welcoming Week into a year-long initiative.
Both Amani and Catholic Charities also have an open-door policy on providing information and educating those who would like to know more about Fort Wayne’s refugee communities.
“We have learned we cannot just work with immigrants and refugees for them to be successful,” Connolly says. “We need to work with the whole community. We need to work with different mindsets, biases, prejudices, attitudes, and beliefs about what refugees are. That is what is ultimately setting up our missions’ families for success.”
This article is distributed in partnership with the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, a group of media outlets and educational institutions in Fort Wayne committed to solutions-oriented reporting. More information is available at fwmediacollaborative.com