Fort Wayne , United States

Gateway to Little Burma

The City of Fort Wayne

June 1, 2010

New gateway cities make newcomer communities count -and be counted.

What US city is now home to the largest population of Burmese refugees?

It would be understandable if what comes to mind is New York, Miami, San Francisco or Chicago.

Try again.

The city is Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, one of America’s new “gateway cities”.

Gateway cities are smaller, mid size cities that are becoming target destinations for new immigrants. While their size might make them more welcoming, they often have less established infrastructure and fewer existing services to assist with integrating immigrants in to the community.

The City Fort Wayne has a long history of welcoming immigrants. However, the needs of the recent Burmese population are quite different than the city’s founding immigrant communities.

Many arrive in Fort Wayne fleeing political and religious persecution. Often they have spent years in refugee camps in Thailand, without meaningful education or employment opportunities. Most speak very little English on arrival and are completely unfamiliar with American culture.

The City of Fort Wayne recognized that more proactive and directive measures would be needed to enable these newcomers to successfully establish themselves. Fort Wayne has since been uniquely successful in collaborating with the federal government, third party organizations as well as the local and national religious and immigrant serving agencies, in order to advance this agenda.

Welcome to Fort Wayne

Fort Wayne has 250,000 residents, nearly 6 percent of which are foreign born. While this is still half the national average, the Burmese arrivals doubled these figures during peak years in 2007 and 2008 against the back-drop of a fierce national debate on immigration reform.

Fort Wayne is no stranger to diversity. Historically called the City of Churches, a nickname going back to the late-1800s when the city was the hub of regional Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal faiths, Fort Wayne boasts a culture of religious tolerance and intercultural dialogue. Religious organizations like Catholic Charities offer resettlement services, and liaise with other community agencies to ensure needs are met.

Today Fort Wayne’s newcomer community reflects the religious diversity of Burma itself, in this case a mix of Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. The New York Times has even run an article on Fort Wayne’s ‘temple boom.’

Language and the police

The influx of Burmese-speaking people to Fort Wayne has city officials and volunteers working on ways to help the immigrants communicate better with emergency workers. Volunteer Rick Piatt has a class of eight Burmese adults learning English in which they play out police and fire-related scenarios. That includes explanations about descriptions are important to police when there is a missing child or when someone is the victim of a crime.

While citizenship issues make it difficult to find police officer candidates among the Burmese immigrants, other reasons include a well-founded mistrust of authorities.

“They’re all afraid of police in [Burma],” explains Nyein Chan, Director of the Catholic Charities resettlement program. “I tell them they pay for the police [with their taxes] and need to call them in an emergency.”

Nyein Chan was himself a refugee from Burma who arrived in Fort Wayne in the mid 1990’s. Today, Chan directs weekly orientation sessions for new refugees in Fort Wayne. Most refugees to the US receive a three day orientation session by the U.S. State Department before leaving the refugee camps. Those arriving in Fort Wayne will receive additional instruction on health, citizenship, public services, education, employment, laws and other aspects of American life.

The meeting opens with a Karen-language video produced by the Department of State. Speaking in Burmese. Nyein Chan explains the dozens of things the refugees will need to know to get their lives started in this country. Some are official, bureaucratic necessities: knowing where to go, who to ask for and what sort of help is available. Other lessons are more unique

For example, when encouraging his clients, Nyein Chan reminds them that their self-sufficiency indirectly benefits those still living in the refugee camps. If a community adapts well, he argues, immigration officials will be more likely to accept more people from the same group.

Being Counted Towards a Shared Future

Fort Wayne recognized the launch of the US Census Decennial campaign in 2009 as an opportunity to make the city both more inclusive and fiscally sustainable.

In the 2000 Census, the recorded Burmese population for all of the United States was 18,000, far below accepted estimates.

The low result meant that the Burmese community did not attain the required population threshold to qualify for government assistance. This includes benefits such as Burmese language versions of government forms and tests, translation services, and the ability to qualify for grants, aid and scholarships from foundations and the government.

Census data provides more than a demographic profile. It also determines political representation (via congressional districts), and the allocation of more than $300 billion USD annually to state, local and tribal areas. Accurate reporting of local newcomer data can increase the level of state and federal funding the city receives to support essential programs.

Being counted also has an important symbolic value. Census participation is a form of representation and a good indicator of the civic engagement of newcomer communities.

The City of Fort Wayne established a Complete Count Committee to work in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau with a mandate to boost the participation of hard to count populations, like the Burmese community.

The Committee’s primary focus was to increase participation by communicating the benefits of having an accurate count to the community while reducing mistrust about dealing the government in general. These efforts extend beyond the Burmese population to support active citizenship and increased civic participation, generally.

For example, Palermo Galindo, the city’s Hispanic and Immigrant liaison, is co-chair of the Complete Count Committee. He acts as a liaison between the Latino community and the Census Bureau, going to local predominately Spanish-speaking churches with Census Bureau workers to explain the process and let people know the government will not use the information against them. He also works with contacts in other minority communities to get the word out.

As of May 1, 2010, Fort Wayne has succeeded in bringing together education, media, business as well as faith and community based groups around its Decennial Census goals. The City of Fort Wayne broke all return census records and the State of Indiana was one of the top 5 states in the country.


The US National League of Cities has recognized, the city of Fort Wayne for its leadership on local immigrant integration, and unique ability to engage so many diverse stakeholders on this shared city agenda.

Fort Wayne was selected as one of the first cities to participate in the NLC’s signature pilot program, Municipal Action for Immigrant Integration Project (MAII), No surprise that a key component of the MAII program is The NewCITYzen Naturalization Campaign, specifically designed to assist cities in developing a strategy to increase immigrant outreach in advance of the 2010 Census.

As Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry states: “Our community has been enriched by the talents, skills and cultures of those that call Fort Wayne home. Our city is stronger and more vibrant because of its diversity. It is hallmark of our All-America City and something for which we all should be proud.”

Fort Wayne’s success in making newcomers count is a strong endorsement of this new gateway city’s openness and accountability to the changing urban landscape.

Related resources:

See the Cities of Migration Webinar: Making Integration Count: Local Gateways to Citizenship

Making it Work for You:

  • Know your community's strengths and make them work to your advantage.
  • Extend scarce resources by being aware of multi-level and cross-sectoral programs and funding support.
  • Collaborate with local, state and national authorities to give your campaign more influence and impact.
  • Intercultural understanding means getting to know new neighbours, their names and families as well as their history and traditions. Then you can share yours.

For this Good Idea contact:

Palermo Galindo
Planner - Hispanic and Immigrant Liaison
City of Fort Wayne
One East Main Street, Fort Wayne, IN 46802,
Office: 260.427.6214
palermo.galindo (at)

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