After he was banned from returning to his home and his job at the Tamwe Township Health Center, Thiha Kyi decided he had had enough.
It was August 1988, the month students rose up against Burma’s military government, demanding democracy after the country had suffered from an ethnic civil war for more than 60 years. Kept from returning home by the nearby uprisings, Kyi found refuge in Rangoon General Hospital.
It didn’t take long for his freedom-fighter spirit to kick in.
During the fighting one day, Kyi and a coworker marched out the front door of the hospital and stood side by side, raising a pro-democracy banner. Seeing what was happening, soldiers surrounded the hospital. Kyi’s eyes focused on the guns pointing at him. He started to panic.
Filing in from behind the hospital, two lines of teenage boys holding Burmese flags formed a barrier between Kyi and soldiers as Kyi prepared to die.
One of the teenage boys turned to Kyi: If they shoot, we die first.
Twenty-five years after he joined the demonstrations and his native country’s name changed to Myanmar, Kyi still calls it Burma – but he doesn’t call it home.
Burma is my native land, where my family is, Kyi says. But now, Fort Wayne is my home.
In 1985, Fort Wayne residents Diana and Neil Sowards visited Burma, a country that had interested the couple because of Neil’s parents’ Christian missionary work. Diana was struck by how, despite the people’s poverty, they were grateful for what they had.
When Diana saw news about the thousands of Burmese students jailed and pushed into Thai refugee camps after the 1988 demonstrations, she contacted eight churches to help sponsor a refugee. In 1991, the first Burmese refugees arrived in Fort Wayne.
In the years since, thousands of Burmese, including Kyi, Nyan Aung and Myo Myint, have found themselves in the same city, where they help make up one of the largest Burmese populations outside of Myanmar, about 3,900 according to 2010 census figures. But though the three men are educated and can speak English, the majority of the refugees living in Fort Wayne come from minority ethnic groups in Myanmar. They have spent much of their lives in refugee camps, have not received formal schooling and struggle to grasp American life.
Kyi, Aung and Myint have stepped up to help.
Kyi is producer of Fort Wayne’s only Burmese TV program, Aung is founder of the nonprofit Burmese American Society and Myint is a volunteer and outgoing democracy advocate.
Though they haven’t forgotten their families and favorite childhood hangouts in Rangoon, they seek to help Fort Wayne’s refugees realize that while they’re here, they ought to take advantage of their voice in a democratic society, freedom of speech and access to books – the very freedoms the three men fought for in Myanmar.
Kyi and another Burmese man thread small microphones up their shirts while Mg Soe Chain, who volunteered to film that day’s Golden Moon TV episode, adjusts his camera in Studio A in the Allen County Public Library’s Access Fort Wayne studio.
I’m going to count to five, Chain tells Kyi and his guest, who will be addressing recent bombings in Myanmar. The show airs Saturdays on a local TV station, but it reaches its widest audience on its YouTube channel, where 6,000 Burmese around the world view the program every week.
Chain starts at one, counting slowly. With his thick Burmese accent, his five comes out sounding more like fight.
Kyi looks to the camera and says, Mingalabar, Burmese for hello. He introduces his guest and continues to deliver the program in Burmese.
Kyi arrived in the United States in March 1994. He started his American life with a job at Wonton’s Chinese Restaurant at Meijer after his supervisor mistook him for Chinese. He spent the next 17 years working, conducting workshops to instruct refugees how to find a job and earning an MBA at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
And in early 2010, when Voice of America employee Thin Ko asked Kyi to start a Burmese TV program, Kyi took on his next task.
With a degree in dental science and an MBA, Kyi hadn’t dabbled much in journalism. He says he once did stand-up comedy in dental school, but since then, he hadn’t been in front of an audience. But just as he learned to cook Chinese food at Meijer, he learned how to run a TV program.
Kyi films Golden Moon TV twice a week, and though the show originally only showed videos courtesy of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, Kyi now brings in guests, airs shows with English language instruction and offers tips about adjusting to American life.
One show focused on two Burmese men who had been robbed. Kyi discussed the incident with them, using the example to give advice to those watching as to how to avoid such situations.
When you come from my country, I have a responsibility to take care of you, whether you like it or not, Kyi says, laughing.
Aung was relaxing in his Churubusco home nearly four years ago when his wife told him Ricker’s laundromat had posted a sign reading, For sanitary purposes, there are no Burmese people allowed. An employee had become irritated with the Burmese spitting betelnut juice, a common practice in Myanmar, outside the building.
Aung met with Mayor Tom Henry, spoke to WANE-TV and met with Metropolitan Human Relations Commission staff. A week after he got involved, Ricker’s removed the sign and apologized.
He saw the root of the issue as a lack of communication between the immigrants and locals in which both groups were at fault.
Later that year, Aung founded the Burmese American Society, a non-profit organization, to bridge the gap between the Burmese and locals.
Though Kyi, Aung and Myint have embraced various aspects of American culture, from watching Colts games to loving McDonald’s french fries, most refugees in Fort Wayne struggle with illiteracy, unemployment and a fear of leaving their homes. Aung thinks a little education can help solve these problems.
As he tells his two daughters and other Burmese, no one can steal your education.
The various ethnic groups from Myanmar are bound by their language or religion, but they are not collectively bound. Not only have the refugees struggled to integrate in the community, but they’ve struggled even to mingle with different ethnic refugees from Myanmar.
They face not only linguistic barriers but also cultural barriers coming from a third-world country, says Bradley Meadows, the communications manager at the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. But he says individuals such as Aung can help this population because he can relate to them in a way Americans can’t.
During the 1988 uprisings, Aung was a participant in the student protests and led the Workers’ Student Union. He wanted to read, write and learn, and he knew better opportunities existed in a democracy.
In 1994, he moved to Massachusetts, where he remembers being the only Burmese.
But four years later, he attended a Burmese conference in Bloomington and finally met fellow Burmese. When he traveled to their home in Fort Wayne, he fell in love with the place.
It was so flat and so cheap, Aung says.
Since he founded the society, Aung has organized homework help sessions, emergency translation services in the four spoken Burmese dialects and trips to state parks such as Pokagon and Chain O’ Lakes. Aung hopes to start a scholarship to bring students from Myanmar to the U.S. for an education as well as to educate the local refugees.
Some of the Burmese here don’t know about lakes, they don’t know about picnics, Aung says in disbelief. You need to eat barbecue, you need to eat sandwiches.
At 4:30 a.m., Myint wakes up and grabs his crutch, tucking it under his left arm to help himself out of bed.
He lost an arm and leg in the civil war in Myanmar, but that doesn’t slow him down. After getting out of bed, he’ll wash his face and make himself a cup of coffee before sitting down at his computer. He’ll be there for the next three hours, corresponding with friends on Facebook, writing for Radio Free Asia and reading world news.
But before he leaves his house at 9 a.m. with his wife – an American woman he met his first day in Fort Wayne – to help Burmese refugees, he first has to attend to another community that depends on him.
I have to feed and water my chickens. Myint says. They are waiting when I go, when I come back.
Myint will spend the rest of his day interpreting for sick Burmese people at the mental health nonprofit Park Center, accompanying refugees in Allen County Jail and Allen County Juvenile Center to court, and taking Burmese kids on house arrest to their probation officer for their weekly appointment.
It’s all volunteer work.
While activists and students were busy talking about democracy in 1988, Myint mounted a stage in front of 8,000 soldiers and civilians to speak of the unseen atrocities of the civil war, advocating peace.
Unlike Kyi and Aung, he didn’t make it to America after the uprisings. Instead, he spent the next 15 years in various prisons as a political prisoner and three years in a Thai refugee camp. In 2008, Myint finally arrived in Fort Wayne.
When he stepped off the plane, he was greeted by his sister, brother-in-law and brother, whom he hadn’t seen in years. On his second day, he went to the now-closed Lincoln Museum to learn about the man he calls his American role model.
This September, Myint was excited to finally become an American citizen. A letter he wrote about his new rights, including – for the first time in his life – the right to choose who would govern him, was published by The Journal Gazette Oct. 1.
The democratic rights he fought for in Myanmar are now his, which he never forgets. But he also doesn’t forget his native land.
A poster of John Lennon hangs on his wall, but directly across the room, so does a poster of Nobel Peace Prize winner and National League for Democracy chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi. He raises chickens in the middle of the Midwest, but they all have Burmese names and live in a green henhouse with house of chickens inscribed in Burmese on its exterior.
When his single rooster crows in the early morning, he says he hears his call in Burmese.
Though he never intends to leave Fort Wayne, he says he knows he can still support Myanmar from nearly 8,500 miles away.
Fort Wayne’s Burmese population is still growing. Catholic Charities, the primary resettlement agency in this region, sponsored 165 refugees in the last fiscal year and provided services to another 256 who resettled elsewhere but chose to relocate to Fort Wayne. As the population increases, so does the breadth of the refugees’ struggle.
It’s important that someone take charge to bridge that gap, the Indiana Civil Rights Commission’s Meadows says of Kyi, Aung and Myint’s roles. I think the refugees will look up to them as resources and as a way to facilitate their networking task.
When Kyi stood outside that hospital in Myanmar 25 years ago, he wasn’t ready to die as he stared down the guns pointed at him. But he hopes that when he dies, he’ll be in his native land. In the meantime, though, he’s allowing himself to benefit from what he considers to be the number-one democracy.
He hopes that with time, the other refugees will recognize these opportunities exist for them as well, and that they will find contentment.
Fort Wayne is peaceful, the traffic isn’t bad, he says, and I am happy.