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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Komoe practices his English on Wednesday with Meghan Menchhofer at the Burmese Advocacy Center, 2424 Lake Ave.

Burmese center moves north

New partners, but mission to help refugees unchanged

– Fort Wayne’s Burmese Advocacy Center has reopened in a new location, a move its leadership said reflects a commitment to the ongoing needs of the local refugee and immigrant population.

The 1,200-square-foot space at 2424 Lake Ave. will offer immigrants and refugees services, including family budgeting, job-skills training and placement, health, language and ethnic community leadership training and child-care counseling.

The new location places the center several miles from its former home at Catherine Kasper Place, 2826 S. Calhoun St., and from the many refugees who live in apartments in the southeast part of the city.

Executive Director Minn Myint Nan Tin said that was a consideration, but the new location is near other apartment complexes where Burmese refugees live and also North Side High School, which has many Burmese students. A lot of immigrants and refugees use health care services in the area.

The location also is accessible by public bus, which Minn Myint Nan Tin hopes will encourage refugees to learn to use the service, one of the center’s goals.

“We don’t want to give them fish,” she said. “We want to teach them how they can fish.”

The Burmese Advocacy Center grew out of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation’s Community Resource Center for Refugees, which opened in 2008 to address an ongoing influx of refugees. The center was rechristened Catherine Kasper Place in 2010 in honor of the founding sister of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. The foundation late last year announced it would close Catherine Kasper Place because the number of refugees arriving locally had dramatically decreased, while its federal grant support also dried up.

The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation said at the time that it originally established Catherine Kasper Place to address health-related needs of newly arriving refugees because many refugees from southeast Asia had never been to a doctor and were at risk of parasites and tuberculosis in their prior environments.

As those challenges were addressed, refugee advocates shifted their efforts away from the needs of newly arrived refugees to refugees who had been living here awhile or had moved here from elsewhere in the country, drawn by the area’s large Burmese population.

Minn Myint Nan Tin said these so-called secondary immigrants need to be taught to understand language and culture. They need job skills so they can move out of low-paying jobs and get off public assistance, she said.

The Burmese Advocacy Center, in new partnerships, reflects those changes.

It’s partnering with the Fort Wayne Karen Baptist Church, the Burmese Muslim Education and Community Center and the Fort Wayne United Zo Organization to identify community immigrant leaders and encourage better communication, Minn Myint Nan Tin said.

It’s also partnering with the Red Cross, Early Childhood Alliance and Community Action of Northeast Indiana to offer home-based child-care certification training for refugee women.

The advocacy center also offers translation services for education, employment and legal situations.

The group has contracted with Fort Wayne Community Schools’ English Language Learners program, offering translation services for teachers, parents and students.

That relationship has filled a gap for the school district, program coordinator Emily Schwartz Keirns said, by allowing Burmese parents to be engaged during parent-teacher conferences.

But that’s just one night. Schwartz Keirns said she sees the Burmese Advocacy Center’s role as deeper, advancing the English-language proficiency of parents and giving them job skills, which can lead to a more stable home life and better parental involvement.

“We can only do so much for the children during the day,” she said. “That helps our children, when adults are supported.”

Burmese Advocacy board member Patrick Proctor said that’s what the board hopes to continue doing, although it will be limited by funding.

The Burmese Advocacy Center was awarded two renewable federal grants totaling $156,000, which will keep it operational for the short term.

Already, it has some contact with immigrants and refugees from Sudan, the Congo, Chad and Haiti.

While the board has discussed expanding the organization’s scope, Proctor said for now, it remains focused on helping the Burmese.

The 2010 census put Fort Wayne’s Burmese community at 3,800 people, although some aid agencies estimate the total is higher.

aturner@jg.net

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