Nation of Immigrants: Fleeing Burma for Fort Wayne, Indiana
Fractured along ethnic lines and decimated by an interminable civil war, many of Burma's refugees have landed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they've opened grocery stores and restaurants to make a living.
All photos by Nick Gomer.
More than 6,000 residents of Fort Wayne, Indiana were born in Burma. That simple-sounding statistic, however, requires explanation. Burma itself (though officially renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989, everyone I spoke with in Fort Wayne calls it Burma) is sliced into about a dozen separate skirmishes. The civil war, as many still call it, has been ongoing since 1948, just months after the country won independence from the British.
In Fort Wayne, the Burmese community is sliced into about a dozen groceries. There are markets for ethnic groups: Mon, Chin, Karen, Bamar, etc. There are Muslim groceries for the most prevalent recent group of Burmese refugees. There are Thai groceries for the Burmese refugees who spent a decade or longer in camps in northern Thailand. Every week, Lin Lin Market sells hundreds of Burmese samosas—smaller and lighter on the turmeric than Indian samosas. At Irrawady Halal, Roby Zum, a Muslim of Burmese descent who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, buys her meat and fish. At the Mon Market, a woman hauls a large durian to the counter. Another store, Little Burma, is well-lit and artfully laid out, like a boutique wine shop. Distributors from Chicago drive trucks to Fort Wayne once a week to restock the thriving groceries.
Aside from some gang fighting between Muslim and Christian Burmese students at Southside High School, the Fort Wayne Burmese community is without violent conflict, but the groups are fragmented along a number of lines.
Over the past decade, more refugees have come to the United States from Burma than any other country. For many years, Fort Wayne was the most common resettlement area. (When I landed at the airport in Yangon, the Burma's largest city, for the first time, my cabbie told me he'd been to America once. "New York?" I asked. "Fort Wayne," he said.)
Lately, restaurant competition is picking up. A successful Mon grocery is opening an adjacent restaurant as soon as they can get up to code. One afternoon in late January, the owner and soon-to-be-cook was aggravated, trying to figure out how to purchase an industrial hood. Her restaurant will be called Never Not Taste, she said, serving hot and sour Mon dishes and Burmese classics like the fish paste-based mohinga.
In May of 2016, just a month after Burma officially became a democracy, Sar Paw opened Nawarat, which is the only restaurant in the city serving halal meat.
Unlike Burma, which is predominantly Buddhist, Fort Wayne's Burmese population breaks down into neatly even thirds — 2,000 Christians, 2,000 Muslims, and 2,000 Buddhists, according to Lutheran Pastor James Keller, who is the primary Burmese refugee and immigrant advocate in Fort Wayne.
If the Fort Wayne community has a chance at commingling, Sar Paw might be its best bet. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, his mother is a Christian Karen from Burma, his father is a Thai Buddhist, and Paw himself converted to Islam. Despite the differing worldviews, Narawat remains a family-run restaurant. His parents owned a restaurant in a refugee camp. His grandfathers owned restaurants back in Burma. He and his Fort Wayne relatives saved for years, working at the Tyson chicken plants that opened around Fort Wayne specifically because of the influx of the reliable Burmese labor. Burmese of all different faiths line up out of Narawat's door for the naan, puri, and paratha.
Narawat is set way back in a half-empty strip mall less than a mile from a sprawling single-story housing project that is occupied almost entirely by Burmese Muslims. Every Thursday, Keller sits in one of the apartments and helps the refugees and immigrants overcome one of their biggest obstacles: paperwork. Green cards, citizenship, speeding tickets, government housing.
In late January, the Burmese Muslims became spooked by the rise of Trump and rushed to update their statuses. Keller helped a Rohingya couple get their green cards. They had walked the nearly 2,000 miles to Malaysia. The Muslim sect, largely located in Burma's Rakhine State, have been oppressed by Buddhist nationalists and their plight has made international headlines. In refugee camps they bought identity cards, which they'd been denied in their own country, from Karens who were looking to stay. Only recently have there been enough Rohingya in Fort Wayne for the group to begin proudly identifying as such, Keller said.
Keller, who learned Burmese in order to help the refugees, has more Burmese friends than American-born friends. His congregation is majority Burmese. He cooks spicy Burmese dishes in his own kitchen—something he learned from hanging around in the homes of his friends. His wife makes chicken wings with a Burmese sauce, and their Burmese friends always ask for the recipe.
The city's oldest Burmese restaurant, Mahnin, is located in a short, white building that curves like an old diner. Across the street The Rialto, a theater built in 1924, is dormant. The city has experienced several downturns and revitalizations. The most recent downturn came with deindustrialization in the 1980s. Downtown, plots have been cleared of empty buildings to make space for parks and new development.
On a Thursday night, Ma Hnin was closing her restaurant, which is extremely well-regarded across all communities, and talking with Tint Maung Maung Htway, the second Burmese refugee to ever come to Fort Wayne.
The two fled Burma at the same time—just after the 1988 student uprising—but came to the United States in different waves. Htway was an active dissident during the uprising, forming a student political party. He risked death, speaking with a BBC reporter about the torture and sexual assault committed by the military. At Mahnin he spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice, looking like the Soprano's Big Pussy Bonpensiero, hunched over the table in a black and white tracksuit. When the military cracked down on his political party, he fled Yangon to Thailand. He heard from his friend that churches in Fort Wayne were sponsoring refugees and soon he was on the ground.
"Dissidents have congregated in Fort Wayne and when they do, they come here," he said of the restaurant.
He launched into a tirade about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country's new democracy who has achieved cult-like status within Myanmar, calling her "a pretty puppet of the military" and "another corrupt liberal."
About 12 well-connected, ethnically Bamar, male college students with a decent command of the English language, like Htway, were the first Burmese to be resettled in Fort Wayne. Different Fort Wayne churches—Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Catholic—sponsored that round. Their education allowed them to integrate quickly. Word spread back to Burma that Fort Wayne was the place to be in America and hundreds of refugees followed.
Ma Hnin, which translates to "Mrs. Snow," was loosely involved with the protests but took advantage of the chaos of the uprising to leave Mawlamyine, the largest city in Mon State, and relocate to Thailand. In Bangkok, she took work in a restaurant and learned to cook. In 1998, she was resettled in Fort Wayne.
"My mom had just passed away," she said through Htway's translation. "I was in an alien land. I thought life would be better but it was a cold and strange place, so I cried, cried, cried."
At that time, there were no Burmese markets, but Ma Hnin started cooking out of her home. Burmese neighbors, usually single guys, would show up with ingredients and she'd cook for them. She built a name for herself in the community. When her husband's company shut down, the $700 per month in government assistance was not enough to support her three kids. She did not want to open a restaurant, but in 2009, she did. The menu is about half Burmese, which she taught herself retroactively from taste memory of her childhood, and half Thai. Dishes like the buttery gang masaman and the beautiful orange-colored Burmese coconut noodle soup with lentil fritters made the place an immediate success.
She is proud of the restaurant's success and her resilience, but her life isn't easy.
"One thing that makes me sad is that I'm cuffed with the chain every day just to make ends meet. Even now," she said. "That's the sad part of me. I can't visit other states or visit Canada, see some of my friends in Australia. A lot of friends live there. I can't make it there because I have to survive here. So the sad part of it is the day-to-day."