James Shwe was 6 years old when an inebriated soldier ordered him and his family out of their thatched-roof home in Chaung Phya, held them at gun point, and made them watch as he lit the house on fire.
Shwe, an education major at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, moved to Fort Wayne in 2008. He is from Burma and spent nearly two decades in Thai refugee camps along the Burmese border.
He also works full time for East Allen County Schools as a translator and student liaison. He works largely on documentation translation, using a Burmese character font in Microsoft Word to translate the school’s English forms for the parents of immigrant children. He speaks English, Burmese, and Karen—the latter is both a language and the name of one of seven ethnic groups in the country.
Burma is an Asian country slightly smaller than Texas and located to the east of India, across the Bay of Bengal. It borders Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand. The country’s civil war dates back to 1949, making it the longest ongoing conflict in the world according to Burma Link, a nonprofit that aims to tell the stories and meet the needs of people from Burma. Three million people have fled from Burma due to its long-standing military regime and political instability, and half a million remain displaced.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian population made up 3.2 percent of Allen County in 2013, more than double 2000’s numbers. Once the home to the largest population of Burmese people outside of Asia, Fort Wayne has many attributes to make it attractive for refugees, says Nyein Chan, the director of resettlement for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend and a Burmese refugee.
“When refugees comes to the United States, more likely they want to live close to each other,” he says. “Living in New York, living in Chicago, living in a big city, it’s tough. It’s very difficult to see each other. Fort Wayne is easy.”
The city’s affordable cost of living also plays a factor, as does the fact that employers like to work with the Burmese, Chan says.
A refugee ‘home’
The first refugees arrived to the Thai camps in 1984, and no one thought they’d still be around 30 years later, according to Burma Link. Thousands have been born in the camps and have never lived anywhere else. Many older people have lived in the camps for so long, they hardly remember their homeland.
Shwe and his family stayed in two camps over the years. The military government burned down the first, Hwake Ka Loke, which did not offer many opportunities for education or healthcare, Shwe said. He learned English in the second camp, Umpiem. He estimates 24,000 to 25,000 people were there—the largest camp housed 60,000—and the camp’s schooling was nothing like America’s.
“There were 23 pages in the science textbook,” Shwe says. “Twenty-three pages didn’t give you a lot of knowledge. Algebra and geometry had a very thick book, but we only got through a third of it.”
Plus, high school was taught by teachers who had just finished high school themselves—teaching did not require any further certification or education.
When an opportunity arose for Shwe to take a TOEFL test, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, he was one of 540 people to sign up. Only 20, including Shwe, were chosen to participate in a two-year English program, where participants spoke only English and lived in on-site dormitories.
A new home
In 2008, the U.S. government opened the doors to Burmese refugee families who were interested in resettling in the United States, Shwe says. Upon arriving, he developed what he calls his “master plan.”
“The first year, I planned to find a job and navigate the school system a little bit. By the second year, I thought I could enroll. The third year, I hoped that I would definitely be able to attend class and try to have studied the location for buying a house. I wanted to graduate within four to five years, in 2014, with at least a bachelor’s degree,” Shwe says. “I failed to make a Plan B.”
Instead, Shwe is still working on an associate degree, a fact he attributes in part to the orientation he and his family received upon moving to the country—it wasn’t enough to understand the workings of America and dispel the rumors spread in the refugee camps, he says.
“Still in our minds, we think that every American person is rich, has a very nice house, has a very good car,” he says. “If you study, the government will pay all your bills.”
Instead, he found that it was a challenge to be self-sufficient.
“My family, we were in a very deep depression,” he says.
This depression is not uncommon among refugees, Chan says. Often, they get their view of America from watching movies, where every place, building, and person is beautiful.
The financial obligations are also an adjustment for refugees.
“Living in the refugee camp, (people) don’t have to worry about paying the rent, paying the utility costs,” Chan says. “They don’t have to worry about paying anything. It’s very poor conditions, but they don’t have to worry about (finances). But living in the United States, they have to worry about their food, their clothing. Refugees start getting stressed out.”
A safe home
Last month, Shwe earned a GED and attended a graduation ceremony at North Side High School. He is uncertain when he will graduate from Ivy Tech Northeast, but he hopes to teach one day as he did in the camps—but he is still navigating the educational differences in America.
For example, teachers in Asia have more authority over students than they have in the United States, he says. Parents participate more in their children’s education there, and the parents give teachers authorization to make decisions for their children. By comparison in America, teachers’ authority is limited.
But Shwe recognizes how lucky he has it.
“We do not have to fear that anyone will come and raid and shoot at us,” he says. “There are no rules or laws you can rely on over there. Bribery is very popular. Here, there is no bribe. It is illegal. As long as you follow the rules and laws, you will be fine. Life is safe here.”
Shwe is the third of six children and lives with his parents in a home built by Habitat for Humanity. He points out how close some family members live: A sister and a cousin share a home nearby. Two brothers live in an apartment. Another sister lives with her family in Fort Wayne.
And not one of them has a thatched roof.