Burmese graduation

A Burmese boy awaits graduation.

A Burmese boy awaits graduation. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

It was one drippingly hot day recently when hundreds of Burmese refugees and their supporters gathered under an immense, slightly rickety homemade tent to celebrate the graduation of their children from the Muslim Sunday School in Fort Wayne.

Burmese sisters watch and wait.

Burmese sisters watch and wait. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

It was an honor for me to be accepted into the gathering and make photographs for the documentary. Although my language wasn’t spoken much at the affair, I was struck by how much everyone made me feel comfortable and welcomed.

A break in the celebration permits time for prayers.

A break in the celebration permits time for prayers. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

This was partially a religious event but even though I presented myself conspicuously at the front of the tent with my camera gear and sat on the ground in front of everyone to make images, a dignified-looking elder found a chair and brought it to me. That kind of hospitality would be shown to me throughout the rest of my five hours at the festive, holy gathering of Muslim humanity.

A Burmese girl watches a performance.

A Burmese girl watches a performance. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

As I gazed at these gloriously dressed individuals, watched their warm interactions, and listened to their chant, songs, readings, and celebrations, I was humbled by them and their acute sense of community and family.

Mother and son bond.

Mother and son bond. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

Fort Wayne’s newest refugees don’t have much and the majority just scrape by these first months/years after their escape from the military regime in their country. But they certainly have each other and their faith. And they remain strong and dignified. Adjusting to a drastically new culture has to be difficult, and I’ll document those challenges. For now, though, just know that I found the Burmese refugees in this gathering to be hearty, hale, and inviting.

Fatherly pride.

A father celebrates his daughter's success. © John Gevers. All rights reserved.

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9 Responses to “Burmese graduation”

  1. Jmark Cannon Says:

    John! Lovely and interestingly poignant images. As a former ESL teacher for FWCS more than a decade ago, I was surprised– if not shocked– when I would have classes full of Burmese monks dressed in their orange garb and sandals in the dead of the winter. And then I realized my own ignorance: differences are not the problem; how we RESPOND to differences is the problem. . . . I realized then that I needed to embrace the culture around me– so I had an ESL school cook out at my home.

    These images and your commentary embrace the Fort Wayne cook out mentality. That is, EVERYONE is part of BOTH a majority and a non-majority group. BRAVO! You have a way of making what is, what it is. You have captured reality in its honest form that so many refuse to see.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Mark

  2. pat thomson Says:

    The graduation photographs are stunning. I also watched your completed videos on Katrina and “Mixed Greens”. It’s easy to see why they are award winners. Now I’m really looking forward to seeing your “Breathing to be Free” video.

  3. Dustin vice Says:

    John,

    Thank you for sharing your new creation and inspiration with us. I love your photo’s and information about the Burmese. While here in Peru a lot of people have been asking what kind of people live in Fort Wayne. I always tell them in the list that we have one of the largest Burmese populations in the states. Many are surprised to hear this and want to know why. I explain that Catholic Charities brought the Burmese here beginning in the 70’s to escape the internal conflict there. I’m wondering how life is like for them now with the economic upheaval and the unemployment levels in Allen County.

    Thank you again John, exceptional work.

    Dustin

  4. Kent Deitemeyer Says:

    John,

    We are going to really enjoy this by the looks of the first installment. Recording the historical changes in the sociology of northern Indiana is one of those things that will become a classic in American journalism/literature. As you saw by my ‘book list’, it is the local stories of migrants to America that I have found my favorite subject matter.

    Contemporary history will mirror the challenges of our own ancestors who came to the Midwest with their culture and began the long process of integrating into America. They will feel the derision and resentment of others but, in time, find their niche. It was not easy for our German heritage to survive and today we have mostly lost touch with it entirely except through our Lutheran roots and some old family recipes! As old age starts to creep in, I look back and discover just how much we have lost as the winds of time have erased the tracks of the rich culture of our grandparents to the point that it no longer seems pertinent or relevant…but in fact, those tracks defined who we are as individuals and family. Your documentary will be a reminder to all of us that we may have given up too much in the pressure to conform.

    We will look forward to following the progress of your documentary with intense interest!

  5. Trina Boedeker Says:

    What wonderful pictures! My first interaction with some of the Burmese folks in our town was about 10 years ago when I had several Burmese men taking severale music classes I taught at IPFW. Their stories of emancipation under incredible odds moved me beyond words They were also some of the hardest working students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. One student, who was learning how to play the guitar from me, would practice so frequently and with such diligence that his fingers would bleed from the steel strings. His determination to be successful in learning the instrument was an inspiration to me.

    In your pictures I especially loved seeing how close the families appeared to be. Such love and pride exhibited, from parent to child. Thank you for sharing this lovely work with us. I look forward to more!

  6. Brandon Wolf Says:

    John,
    You’ve got a great eye and the open heart to match! I am looking forward to seeing how you string these stories and our American culture together. I look forward to seeing your progress!

  7. Adam Craig Says:

    John,

    Very interesting! Nice work. I’m excited to see the completed documentary. I strongly feel that it is important for the United States, and us folks from northern Indiana, to openly welcome those who are leaving behind a life under military oppression.

    The photography is honest and well done. I think that you’ve been blessed with a gift to capture the reality of the risk the Burmese are willing to accept so that they can enjoy the simplest aspects of life in our country. I think this could be a great reminder to we “cradle American’s” that even in our worst times we represent hope to much of the world.

  8. I am so glad that you chose to write about this event. You were able to capture the day and the spirit of those remarkably kindhearted people. They really did welcome everyone with open arms, and I am so happy that you were able to experience and document such a gathering of muslims. This is one step in the right directions for the Islamic community at large. This story shows that at the core, we are a peaceful and loving society and that we have much more to offer America than fear.

  9. Jeffrey Walker Says:

    I too have been impressed by the hospitality and humility of the Burmese people in Fort Wayne. My experience with the Burmese has been as a primary care physician at a free clinic in Fort Wayne. The opportunity to work with Burmese patients has been very enriching. Even while experiencing serious acute and chronic illnesses, the Burmese patients are so gracious. I am humbled each time that I interact with them and learn of their unimaginable experiences. The Burmese are a precious addition to the collective humanity of the Fort Wayne area.

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