FORT WAYNE – A report released Wednesday says what Fort Wayne has known for two decades: Burmese refugees face daunting challenges trying to assimilate in America.
The study by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and the Association for Asian American Studies found that Burmese and Bhutanese refugees living in the United States:
•Have difficulty finding long-term funding and support services.
•Suffer from limited English-language proficiency.
•Face intergenerational conflict between children and elders.
•Are unable to communicate “in various realms,” including at school and work.
People fleeing the Asian nations Bhutan and Myanmar, formerly called Burma, were the two largest refugee groups arriving in the United States in 2011, together accounting for 56 percent of all refugees, according to the report.
Over a five-year period ending with 2012, nearly 80,000 Burmese and nearly 61,000 Bhutanese came to America.
Many of the study’s findings are consistent with what local Burmese and their advocates have been saying since thousands of Burmese refugees began arriving in Fort Wayne in 1993, resettled here by Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.
But the report quantifies some of the hardships. For example, it describes a starkly contrasting educational profile of Burmese-Americans in which 39 percent are high school dropouts while 31 percent have earned college degrees.
The college-degree rate is close to the national figure of 33.5 percent, but the dropout rate is more than four times higher than that for all Americans: 7 percent.
Wednesday’s report, titled “Invisible Newcomers,” states that “an alarming 30 percent of Burmese Americans live below the poverty line.” That’s double the national rate.
The report concludes that “the Burmese and Bhutanese newcomers are falling behind their peers along all socioeconomic measurements.” Those peers are Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong refugees.
The finding of intergenerational conflict is one that has attracted little public attention locally.
“The children live in two different cultures. When they get home, it’s the Burmese culture. … When they go to school, it’s another culture they have to adopt,” Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of Fort Wayne’s Burmese Advocacy Center, said in a telephone interview.
Although older Burmese are willing to learn English and follow American customs, “keeping your culture, your religion, is also very important,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to conflict,” she said. “We are American, we can be American. But in the meantime, we cannot forget who we are.”
The report found that refugees who arrive in the U.S. as adults or teenagers “have a more difficult time adjusting – a fact that is represented in the large high school dropout rates.”
The report recommends that refugee stakeholders improve programs for cultural orientation, English-language education, academic counseling and job training.
Allen County has one of the largest Burmese populations in the country – 3,877 residents in the 2010 census and at least 5,000 by some observers’ estimates.
Fewer than 90 Bhutanese refugees lived in Indiana before 2013, according to the report. The largest concentrations are in Pennsylvania, Texas and New York.
The Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund says it is the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of scholarships for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The nonprofit Association for Asian American Studies promotes teaching and research in Asian-American studies.
The organization made waves in April when it boycotted Israel’s institutions of higher education to protest what it called racial discrimination against Palestinians.