Citizens of the Year

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Meg Distler & Minn Myint Nan Tin

citizens-of-yearWhen Burmese refugees arrive in Fort Wayne, the federal government provides a few months’ worth of meager assistance. But it typically takes three to five years to understand American culture, learn the language and become self-sufficient.

Many people have stepped forward to help refugees make Fort Wayne their home. But two people stand apart for their tireless dedication to helping Burmese refugees, and that is why Meg Distler and Minn Myint Nan Tin are The Journal Gazette’s Citizens of the Year.

Several years ago, leaders from beneficiary agencies of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation went to Distler, the foundation’s executive director, and said, “We’ve got a problem.” The State Department had announced an increase in the number of Burmese refugees coming to Fort Wayne. The impending arrivals threatened to break resources already stretched thin.

Distler’s solution was to compete for $1.7 million in new grants. Equally crucial was finding the right person to manage the agency offering needed services and to ensure the grant money would be put to its best use. Minn Myint Nan Tin, who has served as executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center since it was created in 2008, has admirably fulfilled that role.

During 2010, the foundation passed a major milestone when it expanded services at the Community Resource Center for Refugees and rechristened the building as the Catherine Kasper Place. The Burmese Advocacy Center tallied more than 10,000 office visits from people taking advantage of its programs.

Distler, 50, has put her faith into action by devoting herself to ensuring health care is accessible to all county residents, including refugees. And Nan Tin, 36, has dedicated her life to helping Burmese refugees become thriving members of the community.

The Sisters’ mission

Catherine Kasper Place, 2826 S. Calhoun St., houses the foundation, as well as 12 non-profit agencies, including the Burmese Advocacy Center. It was named for the founding sister of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, an appropriate honor since the sisters created the foundation with proceeds from the sale of St. Joseph Hospital in 1998.

Foundation officials were concerned about the health of the Burmese because many had never seen a doctor, many had been previously living in refugee camps where they were susceptible to parasites, and a significant percentage of the population in Southeast Asia has been exposed to tuberculosis. “It’s hard to navigate the American health care system even if you speak English,” Distler said.

“She was instrumental in dealing with the huge influx of refugees in 2007 and 2008,” said Sister Carole Langhauser, who belongs to the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ congregation and serves on the foundation’s board of directors. “She knew something had to be done, and she took charge to see that it got done. Because of her work, things went well.”

Long before the influx of Burmese refugees inspired Distler to go after new grants, she worked to help refugees.

“She was really a leader in recognizing, not only for Burmese refugees but all refugees, the very unique services they would need,” said David Bennett, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne. She was adept at communicating with state and federal government officials not just to acquire funding for refugee services but to inform them about what was happening here. “She took all of that on her shoulders. It’s just been remarkable what she has done,” Bennett said. But Distler won’t accept all the credit. “This is not just me; it’s taken a lot of people.”

Burmese Advocacy Center

Patrick Proctor, a local attorney who serves on the advocacy center’s board of directors, said Distler was essential to the formation of the Burmese Advocacy Center. “Both Meg and Minn want to help the Burmese. If Meg had not gotten the ball rolling, it would not have happened. She identified grants and got grants and then she identified people in the community that the Burmese community would know and trust.”

Langhauser agrees that one of Distler’s gifts is knowing who the right people are to pull to the table and convincing them to buy into what she is asking of them to get the job done.

Nan Tin is an excellent example. She is perfectly suited to lead the Advocacy Center.

“She was actually a refugee and knows exactly what they are thinking and feeling,” Proctor said. “She has experienced being homeless and living in the jungle.”

Nan Tin came to Indiana in 1995 after being granted political asylum through a United Nations resettlement program. She first settled in the Indianapolis area, then attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where she received her bachelor’s degree.

While the foundation focuses primarily on the community’s health, there are three components to the advocacy center’s services under the grants: health care, employment and self-sufficiency.

“I can’t say enough about how hard she (Nan Tin) works,” Proctor said.

Nan Tin admits the one part of her job she struggles with is when she can’t help. “It’s so difficult to say no because we know the difficulties they face. We’ve been there. We refer as much as possible,” she said.

Flood of refugees

Fort Wayne very likely has one of the largest populations of Burmese living outside Myanmar. There is no precise count, but the estimate is more than 6,000. An average of 125 Burmese were sent by the federal government to settle in Fort Wayne each year between 1993 and 2006. In 2007 that number increased to 700 and to 800 in 2008. But those numbers don’t include what is referred to as secondary migration, the many people who were initially settled elsewhere but who moved to Fort Wayne to be closer to family, friends and the city’s growing Burmese community.

When refugees are sent to Fort Wayne, they are given a small sum of money to buy essentials. The refugees are told they need to use the money to buy cooking utensils and beds, for example. But sometimes the items they are supposed to buy are of little use to Burmese.

“You have to know the culture to be able to help,” said Dr. Khin Mar Oo, a physician at the Fort Wayne VA Medical Center, board president of the advocacy center and a Burmese herself. “Having the money doesn’t mean you can help. That’s another reason why the Burmese Advocacy Center is successful. We know the culture. Without knowing the culture, just having the money doesn’t take care of everything.

The board hired Nan Tin because members were “looking for someone who had worked in the Burmese community and who had made a difference and who was one step ahead,” Oo said.

She said most non-profits have a lot more money than the advocacy center and a much larger staff. “Her position is executive director, but she has to do everything. For us she is it. She does HR, payroll, management of the fund and bookkeeping. And I think she’s done an excellent job for us.”

A bad sign

Nan Tin’s experience, understanding of the diverse cultures within the Burmese community and leadership enabled her to adroitly manage an ugly incident of cultural misunderstanding in March 2010. An employee of a local laundry posted a sign that read, “For Sanitary Purposes, There Are No Burmese People Allowed.” Nan Tin’s diplomatic handling helped the community overcome the incendiary incident and turn it into a means of greater understanding on both sides.

“I wish it didn’t happen because it wasn’t pretty,” Nan Tin said. “But, yes, we did get attention because of that case. And it was an education for us and the community. That was a good thing.”

She made it clear that while the sign was offensive and likely illegal, the Burmese community also had a responsibility to learn American customs and understand that the activity that likely provoked the sign – chewing betel nuts and spitting out the juice – may be acceptable in the refugee’s homeland, but not here.

She said she learned several valuable lessons herself, including dealing with media, handling legal issues, continuing regular operations in a crisis and dealing with upset clients.

“Another thing she’s great at is networking,” Proctor said. “Regardless of culture, regardless of background, she is able to reach out and make a connection. She’s an excellent spokesperson for the Burmese Advocacy Center. She’s energetic and never seems to tire. The one reason she keeps so busy is she wouldn’t know what to do with herself if she wasn’t going out and doing something to help. She is a tireless advocate.”

Distler is compelled by her religious beliefs and strong faith to help people. Nan Tin’s desire to help Burmese acclimate to Fort Wayne comes from a shared experience. Both have committed long hours and realized success at their mission to make Fort Wayne a better place, no matter how long its residents have called it home.

Reprinted by permission. Copyright 2011 The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Photo by Sam Hoffman, The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, IN