From fear to freedom

Helping refugees find their way

By Melissa Rinehart
Chan Hmaine Aung came to the United States from Myanmar over a decade ago and has worked tirelessly to educate himself while helping other Burmese do the same. Chan grew up in the mid-sized port city of Pathein, Myanmar — the country formerly known as Burma. Myanmar has been under direct and indirect military control ever since a coup d’etat took over parliament in 1962. Chan’s father, Aung Saw Oo, involved himself in pro-democratic activism thereafter and eventually joined the National League for Democracy organized by Aung San Suu Kyi. His efforts resulted in two prison sentences totaling five years.

The regime’s surveillance of Aung Saw Oo’s activities increased, so he fled to the Thai-Burma border in 1991. He obtained political asylum to the United States in 1999. Chan and his family remained in Burma, but they, too, fell under suspicion by the regime, so they moved to Thailand and worked for the Burmese Independence News Agency. After applying for lawful permanent residence under the Family Reunification program, they joined Aung Saw Oo in Maryland in 2001. It had been 11 years since Chan had seen his father.

Chan stayed in Maryland for five years, schooling himself in American customs and the English language. Upon the invitation of friends, he moved to Fort Wayne in 2006. Once he arrived, he immediately began working with refugees. He led a successful campaign for immigrant workers’ rights and has organized fundraisers, candlelight vigils and marches for greater Burmese awareness. Chan turned city apartments into teaching centers for English and Burmese instruction to refugee families. He has continuously provided volunteer interpretation and transportation services for those needing assistance with government, employment, educational, medical and immigration appointments. Chan began a community garden project as a means for the Burmese to grow culturally appropriate foods and enable greater economic self-sufficiency.

In 2008, Chan was one of the original founders of the Burmese Advocacy Center that continues to serve Burmese refugees in the Fort Wayne area. Currently, he is employed by Catherine Kasper Place as the program coordinator for job development and the Fresh Food Initiative for refugees.
Chan considers his volunteer work to be his biggest achievement in Fort Wayne. With familial roots in political and social activism, it’s only natural for Chan to continue serving the community as his father did for decades in Myanmar. His story serves as testament to the meaning of freedom, and through his commitments hundreds of Burmese political refugees now live freely and without fear in Fort Wayne.

Posted: Tue, 02/12/2013 - 2:13 pm
Last updated: Tue, 03/12/2013 - 12:38 pm