Just south of Interstate 465 on Indianapolis’s south side, clusters of brightly colored signs for Asian markets and restaurants reside as a testament to decades of immigration: Over the course of the last half-century, Southport, Indiana has become one of the largest enclaves of Burmese people in America.
“Within terms of Burmese refugees, they came [to the United States] in three different waves,” Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, Multicultural Collections Curator at the Indiana Historical Society, said.
The smaller first wave, primarily Sino-Burmese people fleeing socioeconomic pressure, came in the 1960s amidst civil unrest among the nation’s ethnic minorities after the recently elected government instituted Buddhism as the official state religion, ultimately resulting in a military coup in 1962; the nation was cemented constitutionally as a socialist authoritarian state a decade later. The second wave began with political violence in Burma during the 1980s, leading some of the first Burmese immigrants to Indiana, with many flocking to Fort Wayne.
In 1980, the United States passed the Refugee Resettlement Act, then a response to an overwhelming number of Cambodian and Vietnamese people fleeing their region’s turmoil. But the legislation became a critical foundation for all refugee peoples in America: It formalized a set of procedures, programs and means of funding aimed at expediting and ensuring the development of economic self-sufficiency among refugees in America.
Since 2006, these refugees have consisted primarily of Burmese ethnic minorities. From 2009-2019, Burmese refugees comprised over 76% of the total refugees in Indiana.
“We are currently in the third wave,” Martinez-LeGrand said. “That’s where we saw a great increase in Indianapolis.”
As of August 2023, the Burmese population in the United States is approximately 322,000. According to the Burmese American Community Institute, 40,000 Burmese people are living in Indiana, with around 30,000 of them residing in Indianapolis. But Burmese people do not commonly refer to themselves as Burmese, opting instead for more specific ethnic groups including Chin, Mon and Karen. Indiana alone is home to a variety of these Burmese ethnic groups.
Southport, on the south end of Indianapolis, is home to a large population of Chin people, leading to the affectionate nickname “Chindianapolis.” A largely Christian population, many of them settled in their area because of access to an abundance of churches, along with employment and low housing costs.
Yet Indianapolis has one key attraction for recently arriving refugees: the support of the community that’s already there.
“Some refugees who have connections within the States can show the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] where they want to go,” Dr. Minyoung Lim, an assistant professor at Bethel University said. But if they do not have connections in the United States, Lim added, they often do not know where to go.
Drawn to the security of the Burmese population in Indianapolis, secondary migration for many refugees meant a move to Central Indiana.
“Some refugees just went to San Diego or North Carolina, and then they didn’t have any chance to meet with … the same ethnic group in the area. So the refugees, they had to choose secondary migration within the states,” Lim said.
Nonetheless, refugees in the area still face considerable struggles in integrating with their host communities.
“Number one, it’s just language,” Martinez-LeGrand said. “I think that once you don’t have that, if you have nobody to understand you, how can they help you?”
As of 2019, only 38% of the United States’ Burmese population was proficient in English, according to the Pew Research Center. Finding translators can pose great difficulty for Burmese refugees, Martinez-LeGrand said, especially for those who speak less common dialects associated with Burmese ethnic minorities — as is the case with many of the Rohingya Burmese, a largely Muslim ethnic group that has fled Burma since the military began a bloody campaign against them.
“They don’t know how to study because they [can’t] understand. So the language [inhibits] their learning,” Lim said.
Lim said that while some students were able to access translation services through ESL programs, these are not guaranteed statewide, and students not afforded language-learning opportunities struggle.
“They are always behind,” Lim said.
Healthcare access is another obstacle for refugees in greater Indianapolis. A study of Chin utilization of healthcare published in the Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences found that Burmese refugees often feel “other” in their host communities, and thus can be averse to host institutions. Compounded with language barriers and unfamiliarity with the practices of the American healthcare system, seeking medical care can entail overcoming significant barriers for Burmese refugees.
While the government provides monetary assistance and connects refugees with initial medical care, English-learning services and other forms of assistance, the bulk of resettlement work is often fulfilled by local resettlement organizations. Indianapolis is one of 189 cities in the United States that collaborates with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees.
“The day-to-day stuff — that boils down to [groups] like Exodus Refugee,” Martinez-LeGrand said.
Exodus Refugee, a refugee resettlement organization in Indianapolis, has worked closely with the local Burmese community. Founded in 1981, Exodus Refugee works to support refugees from the point of arrival to the point of self-sufficiency through English classes, job-finding assistance, financial literacy workshops and counseling.
The organization, along with various volunteer groups in the city, helps refugees find housing and work, and more generally helps the refugees to assimilate into Indianapolis life.
According to Martinez-LeGrand, local organizations have greater flexibility than government employees and programs, which allows them to take on more of the burden.
Today, much of Indianapolis’s refugee advocacy comes from within the Burmese community itself. The Burmese American Community Institute, headquartered in Indianapolis, oversees a broad array of integration, education and self-sufficiency-focused programs. BACI also hosts the Upward College Program, equipping high school students with college-readiness skills, even familiarizing students with college-level research practices.
“[They hire] young high school students to do interviews within their own community to record their own history, but also to get social science data,” Martinez-LeGrand said of the BACI’s programming. “Within their own community, they’re very much focused on youth and education.”
In 2022, the BACI launched its Community Health and Wellness Program, geared at addressing post-pandemic mental, emotional, physical and behavioral health issues facing the Burmese community. Their Inform, Navigate & Direct You (INDY) Program has taken on some of the workload once held by other resettlement organizations, connecting newcomers with necessary services and information through newsletters, social media and direct referrals.
“They are now [mentors] for students in high school, for Burmese refugees, because they don’t want the younger generation [to experience] similar things,” Lim said.
On September 28, 2023, the BACI hosted a Community Awards Dinner as part of their celebration of 30 years of Burmese growth in Indiana.
“We are grateful and thankful to the American people and to our Hoosier neighbors for welcoming us with open arms and allowing us to start our new lives here,” Elaisa Vahnie, Executive Director of the BACI, said at the event. “The successes and positive impact we see today in our community are a testament to the ways in which we have come together.”