FORT WAYNE, INDIANA - The 25th anniversary of the first Burmese refugees settling in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is especially sweet for Minn Myint Nan Tin. It coincides with her adopted city, now home to some 10,000 Burmese, becoming a Friendship City with Mawlamyine, the fourth largest city in Myanmar.
"For me it is a dream come true, especially I have a chance to have people who care about us and also the country I love both meet," said the co-founder of the Burmese Advocacy Center.
Minn was a key player in bringing the project to Fort Wayne, home to the largest Burmese population outside Myanmar. The Friendship City program falls under the umbrella of Sister Cities, but is a less formal arrangement.
Sister Cities officials in Fort Wayne felt the time was right to establish relations. Myanmar held a free and open election in November, and the National League for Democracy — led by Aung San Suu Kyi — swept to victory. It has just formed the country's first fully elected civilian government in half a century.
A lot has changed for the refugees, too. Several have started their own businesses — including 13 grocery stores, 3 restaurants, 2 hair salons, and a car dealership. Fort Wayne Sister Cities president, Dorothy Kittaka, notes that a generation of children has grown up speaking English — and many Burmese have become U.S. citizens.
"So this is a place where they're thriving,” she said. “And why not go back and see what we can do to connect with what they left?"
In February, nine members of the Fort Wayne community, including Sister Cities Vice President Tom Herr, made the first official visit to Mawlamyine. In addition to signing the agreement, the delegation visited schools, hospitals and religious institutions to see how the cultures might learn and benefit from one another.
"They need a lot of help," Herr observed, "and I think they maybe look toward us to help them with this new period in their history."
The group has already identified several areas in which it can help: from helping to bring submersible pumps for wells and solar energy to the developing country, to donating new equipment for the local hospital to starting an English as a second language program.
Fort Wayne has four Sister Cities, and Kittaka says the program promotes international understanding through the development of personal relationships.
"This is where it starts,” she said, “with people going and having this experience with the home stays. Going to their schools, seeing their land, how people are people all over. Connect one person at a time."
As committee chair, Minn is already working on setting up an additional visit to Myanmar at the end of this year, followed by a student exchange in 2017. She hopes that by that time, the Friendship agreement will have blossomed into a full Sister Cities program, further connecting her new home with her old.