First Northeast Indiana Immigration Network event highlights refugee resettlement programs

The recent Northeast Indiana Immigration Network inaugural event brought about 100 people to the Allen County Public Library to learn about local refugee resettlement programs. Hosted by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, Amani Family Services, Catholic Charities, and International House, the discussion began with a moving personal story from So Min Oo, a Burmese refugee who moved to Fort Wayne in 2007 after living in a refugee camp for just over a decade. 

Oo described living in a peaceful Burmese village until he was 11 years old. It was then that the Burmese military bombed his village, killing thousands of people. Oo and his family escaped and he says, “We walked for days, hiding in the forests, sleeping under the stars, looking over our shoulders for danger. The days were hot and long, the nights were cold and dark, but we were determined to survive…the camps were overcrowded and we had to help one another get water and food. I spent over 11 years in that camp. I witnessed thousands of people die from preventable disease and illness.”

Oo’s family was able to travel to Fort Wayne as part of the Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program and they were grateful for access to food, shelter and employment. The circumstances were challenging, however – he had to learn the language, get an education and learn about the American culture. Oo says, “I was determined to succeed…no matter how difficult the journey is, there is always a way forward.” Oo is now an operations manager for Kroger and is working on his MBA while volunteering with the Burmese Muslim Education and Community Center. He hopes to make the journey for new refugees a little easier and more welcoming, and he encouraged everyone to join him in his work.

Following So Min Oo’s remarks, Desiree Koger-Gustafson, a senior immigration attorney with Immigration for Couples, shared her insights about the various legal classifications for refugees and immigrants and the challenges in finding pathways to citizenship.

Koger-Gustafson was followed by a presentation from Elizabeth Frank, director of The Welcome Corps, the U.S. State Department’s newest public-private immigration program launched in January. The program aims to resettle 5,000 refugees already identified from selected countries. Host families will play a role in welcoming the refugees to the United States.

The program ended with a panel discussion about the work of Amani Family Services, Catholic Charities, and International House, with time for questions and answers. 

“I am so pleased we had so much interest in our first Immigration Network event,” says Meg Distler, executive director of the St. Joe Foundation. “We hope to continue regular network meetings to provide valuable information to the community and share our commitment to welcoming immigrants and refugees to our community.”

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