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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Several local refugee resettlement officials meet Thursday with Larry Bartlett of the State Department and Shelly Pitterman of the United Nations.

Pace of Burmese immigration to slacken

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Nyein Chan, left, of Catholic Charities and Palermo Galindo of the mayor’s office listen to a discussion of refugee issues Thursday.

Burmese refugees will continue to resettle in Fort Wayne, although in smaller numbers, an official for the U.S. State Department predicted Thursday.

The decline might be offset by an increase in refugees from Congo and Iraq, according to Larry Bartlett, director of refugee admissions for the State Department.

About 60 Congolese refugees have arrived in Fort Wayne in recent years.

“I would expect the program in Fort Wayne to remain strong,” Bartlett told a gathering of local, state and federal government officials at Citizens Square. “We certainly do not want to overwhelm a community.”

Mayor Tom Henry said that “for a while, we were being overloaded. … We just did not have the resources.”

Henry was referring to 2007-08, when Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese resettled more than 1,400 Burmese refugees in Fort Wayne.

This year’s local cap for refugees is 170.

Bartlett acknowledged that the 2007-08 influx “probably is not the right model for how we manage a program.”

Among 350 resettlement communities nationwide, only three are in Indiana: Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis.

“Not every community rallies around refugees,” Bartlett told Henry. “And so it is especially gratifying to come to a place that does. But I’m not here to tell you that your work is done.”

Because of wars and persecution around the world, “there are many millions of people in need of protection,” said Shelly Pitterman, regional director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than 2,700 Burmese refugees have come to Allen County since 1993 to escape military rule in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Democratic reforms taking shape in the Southeast Asian country are expected to slow and perhaps reverse the exodus.

Fort Wayne is home to at least 5,000 Burmese, Henry said.

“To me, it’s a good problem to have,” the mayor said about challenges to both the city and its refugee population. “They wouldn’t come here if we didn’t have something to offer them.”

Henry said Fort Wayne adheres to a “welcome mat” philosophy. In addition to Burmese and Congolese, the city is home to refugees from Bosnia, Darfur and Somalia.

Refugee hardships were described earlier Thursday when Bartlett, Pitterman and representatives of refugee service providers met at Catholic Charities offices on East Washington Boulevard.

The new arrivals tend to lack the education, job skills and English-language proficiency needed for quick assimilation and advancement, service providers said. Some have to travel out of state to find work. There are Burmese mothers who are raising children while their husbands remain in overseas refugee camps.

“My greatest fear is that we are increasing the generational poverty,” said Dr. Deborah McMahan, city-county health commissioner.

Bartlett said most refugees become self-sufficient, but Pitterman wondered how that can be measured. For instance, he asked, is self-sufficiency reached by obtaining U.S. citizenship, receiving a pay raise or getting a driver’s license?

“The United States hasn’t defined what is the national definition of the success of the program, and maybe it shouldn’t,” he said. “What’s the answer for Fort Wayne in terms of the way things need to be is not necessarily the answer for Las Vegas.”

Pitterman and Bartlett visited Burmese refugees in Indianapolis on Wednesday and planned to meet with Iraqi refugees in Detroit today.