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Indiana City Welcomes Myanmar Refugees, Struggles With Syrians


The light on the nightstand is bright and startling as it clicks on in the dark bedroom. Bu Say Wah squints as his dad softly speaks Karen, his indigenous language from Myanmar. Per Ler tells his son it's time for a new day at school.

Bu Say scrambles out from under the blankets on the bed — two mattresses pushed together on which the whole family sleeps. Careful not to awaken his 3-year old brother, he is eager to enjoy a bowl of rice and a favorite of American children: Corn Pops cereal.

The first-grader knows how precious breakfast is. He lived his first six years in Tham Hin, a refugee camp on the Thailand/Myanmar border. His parents were laborers in the camp for 27 years.

Bu Say's mother, Sher Kho Moo, speaks in Karen, telling us the food is good in the United States. It was never plentiful at the camp. The refugee camp was violent, and her family was afraid. Here, she says, they are not afraid of anything.

Refugee-friendly city

Last year, the family resettled in a city in America's heartland: Fort Wayne, Indiana, home to 5,000 other refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Sher Kho Moo works the afternoon shift in the tire department of a car factory. After a year, her English is minimal. She works, while Per Ler takes English lessons.

Bu Say Wah waits for his school bus to pick him up. The first-grader is learning English as well as his native language at his Fort Wayne school. His teachers say he is a star pupil and respectful. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Bu Say Wah waits for his school bus to pick him up. The first-grader is learning English as well as his native language at his Fort Wayne school. His teachers say he is a star pupil and respectful. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Bu Say is learning the language, too. During traditional English grammar lessons at his public elementary school, Bu Say and five other international students are pulled out of class to attend English Language Learner courses, which are designed for foreign students learning a new language as well as their own native languages. His teachers say he is quick, a star pupil, and respectful.

Eighty languages are spoken in the school district. Fort Wayne is known for welcoming refugees But shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks, Governor Mike Pence said Indiana would not accept any Syrian refugees because of security risks.

That set off a protest at the county courthouse in Fort Wayne. Protesters say the current refugee vetting is enough to keep Americans safe. A federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the governor on his statement, saying the state cannot bar refugees from one country while accepting refugees from others.

'Be selective'

But the town seems split. Christmas tree lights were twinkling at a local shopping district where most of the shoppers agreed with the governor.

One man said his friends and family convinced him. "Whatever the number [of Syrian refugees] the president has agreed to allow in — 10,000 — the number doesn't concern me," he said. "But the infiltration of a terrorist within that group? And why in the world — ISIS and the Muslim countries — why don't they have plenty of room to help themselves?"

A resident who formerly worked in security said, "Let everybody in, but screen them. It's easy to do. It's just a matter of [doing] the research. Be fair, be vigilant and everyone will be safe."

A college coed said, "With everything going on right now, I feel we should be selective in those decisions, bringing people in — from any country, for that matter, and not just Syria."

Members of the group Fort Wayne for Syrian Refugees meet to discuss strategy. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Members of the group Fort Wayne for Syrian Refugees meet to discuss strategy. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Advocates for Syrians

The group Fort Wayne for Syrian Refugees is working to change minds and find homes for Syrians. They believe the government controversy will die down within six months and Syrian refugees will be accepted into Indiana in 2016.

Members of Fort Wayne for Syrian Refugees believe the government controversy will die down and Syrian refugees will be accepted into Indiana in 2016. They say they must "humanize" Arabs by socializing with resistant residents. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Members of Fort Wayne for Syrian Refugees believe the government controversy will die down and Syrian refugees will be accepted into Indiana in 2016. They say they must "humanize" Arabs by socializing with resistant residents. (C. Presutti/VOA)

At their weekly meeting, the Syrian members pointed out Fort Wayne's Syrian community is 100 years old and its current job is to "humanize" Arabs by socializing with resistant residents.

"They need to know me," says attorney Sam Jarjour, a second-generation Syrian. "They need to know, 'Here's someone like you, and they are Syrian.' "

"That's the battle," said Caleb Jehl, who just returned from Europe with other group members as they traced the refugees' journey. "There is a tide of national racism that is unprecedented."

Meanwhile, Sher Moo Kho doesn't comment on government issues such as the refugee controversy. She just says she wants her sons to grow up to be doctors in an American hospital.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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