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For Indiana Community, Myanmar’s Cyclone Crisis Hits Home

May 14, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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Fort Wayne, Ind., is home to one of the largest Myanmar immigrant communities in the United States. Elizabeth Brackett reports on the community's unique perspective on the handling of the humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the cyclone that devastated the country.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, dealing long distance with the tragedy in Myanmar. There was more bad news today, as the unofficial death toll estimate climbed once again.

NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago has our report on the Burmese community’s response in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: The soft sounds of Buddhist monks at prayer fill the room. The monks pray in their monastery, this tract home in the unlikely location of Fort Wayne, Indiana. That’s a long way from their homeland in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The monastery is one of six Buddhist places of worship in Fort Wayne, home to the largest Burmese population in the country. The monks’ prayers are for those caught in the deadly cyclone.

Like nearly everyone in the Burmese diaspora, the monks have spent the last week praying, as well as trying to raise relief funds and contact family and friends.

VEN KUTHAMA: I got contact with my family. They said their roof and house, it’s destroyed, but every people of the family are safe.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Across town, Minerva Gyaw finds something to smile about, as she watches her great-grandchildren play. It has been a week of very few smiles for Gyaw, who came to Fort Wayne in 1998, after working for the U.S. embassy for 30 years in the country she still calls Burma.

She has yet to reach many of her relatives who live in the delta region, the area hardest hit by the cyclone.

MINERVA GYAW: It was a big shock for us to see, because we put ourselves in their place and how they would be suffering, and especially in the delta part, which is very low. And we heard that the waves were about 10- to 12-feet-high, and knowing that many would be drowned.

We learned that this cyclone lasted about over 12 hours. So, you know, they would lose — you know, with very flimsy roofs and poor construction, the houses would be blown off. And we just can’t imagine how, you know, they would be suffering.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At the Little Burma grocery store, customers talk of little else but the cyclone. There’s also a deep sense of frustration with the military junta’s slow response to the disaster, but there is a reluctance to harshly criticize the junta, for fear of reprisals on family members back in Myanmar.

KYI ZAW: I’m so sad for what is happening right now in Burma. Even a week or 10 days after the cyclone, I don’t see much things being done by the Burmese government to the victims of the cyclone.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Just over 4,000 Burmese people have now settled here in Fort Wayne. All three religious groups are represented, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim. And though there are traditional tensions between these groups both in Myanmar and here in Fort Wayne, now the horror of the storm has brought those groups together.

Prayer services have been held across the city, as Fort Wayne responds to the disaster. Long term, Fort Wayne homes are being renovated for the rising number of Burmese refugees, this renovation coordinated by the Fort Wayne Baptist minister, who sponsored the first Burmese refugee family back in 1989.

Neil Sowards, the son of a missionary who worked in Burma, enabled the first refugees to get out of Burma after their lives were endangered by participating in the political uprisings against the military junta in 1988.

As the military junta became stronger, many more Burmese followed to build a new life in a city very different from the ones they had left behind.

Sowards says the cyclone is the worst storm to hit the country in the last 100 years, and he worries that the death toll will only continue to rise.

NEIL SOWARDS, Friends of Burma: The first death came from what we call a hurricane, they call a cyclone. The second will come from bad water, dissenter, dengue fever, and cholera has already broken out. And the third will come from starvation.

And they just — they will not have a crop until September, and their food has all been wiped out.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sowards’ organization, the Friends of Burma, has what few other relief organizations have: extensive contacts in Myanmar and ways to deliver the money it raises without government interference.

NEIL SOWARDS: We had money on hand for our various programs. We released $20,000 for immediate purchase of rice and medical supplies, and we had 200 mosquito nets on hand that we were planning to give out in the future, but we gave them out immediately.

The only thing that really is helpful is money, because you can’t send food or medicine. It takes too long to get there. But there are medicines and food there that can be purchased in other parts of the country that were not affected.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nearly all the Burmese refugees who have come to Fort Wayne are helped by Catholic charities. Nyien Chan is the current resettlement director for the agency.

At the same time Chan is trying to help organize relief efforts, he spends hours on the phone and the Internet hoping for news of his own relatives. His wife has made contact with her family, but so far Chan has heard nothing.

NYIEN CHAN, Catholic Charity: The thing is after I’ve been learning about the picture on the news and the Internet and the radio stations, so it’s pretty much difficult for me to stay without any direct connection to my family and also learn that other people are also frustrated and worry as much as I do for their families.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So in the Midwestern city of Fort Wayne, its largest refugee group, the Burmese, continue to pray for relief for their family and friends half way around the globe.