Signs posted throughout a Franklin manufacturing facility are in two languages: English and Chin.
The words in Chin are designed for Burmese immigrants, who now make up one-third of all workers at KYB Americas in Franklin. Ten years ago, you’d find no more than 10 Burmese working machines on the factory floor. Now, the company has hired a translator and trainer to help their more than 200 Burmese workers.
Thousands of refugees have fled Burma in recent decades due to military coups, civil wars and political upheaval in the southeast Asian country. More than 100,000 Burmese have immigrated or been granted asylum in the United States, and the southside has become a rapidly growing location for new Burmese entering the U.S.
About 3,700 Burmese were living in Marion County in 2010, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Now, that number might be as high as 10,000, with many of the Burmese finding homes in the area around Stop 11 Road, said Cole Varga, director of operations for Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indianapolis. Most of those Burmese are ethnic Chins from a state in northwest Burma, he said.
A large number of Burmese aren’t living in Johnson County, according to census numbers, which most recently showed five Burmese residents in the county. But they are more often heading south for work, such as at KYB, where 210 of the company’s 632 workers are Burmese. Because of the increase over the past 10 years, KYB hired Lian Maung to help translate documents, train new workers and teach English to people who aren’t fluent.
Maung, who is Chin, came to Indianapolis four years ago to join his sister after living as a refugee in Singapore for seven years. His father got involved in politics, which put the entire family in danger in the constantly shifting military and quasi-military governments. He doesn’t think he’ll ever go back to Burma because it wouldn’t be safe, he said.
For Burmese who don’t already have family here like Maung, Indiana has become a destination for refugees because help, such as food stamps and health care, are available, and local groups already have formed to help guide and teach new immigrants, Maung said. Indianapolis became an ideal settling place because rent is relatively low compared with other large cities, and jobs at local factories or warehouses in Plainfield have been plentiful, Varga said.
“There’s a lot of help and benefit available. I’m quickly able to get a job and settle quickly,” Maung said.
Local Burmese cultural groups that are established in Indianapolis also help to acclimate a new immigrant to the U.S. more quickly. Many of the refugees from Burma have to flee to nearby countries such as India, Thailand or Malaysia, where they have no support and may struggle to find a home or get a job and provide for their family, Maung said.
Living as a refugee for years causes people to be more cautious about whom they trust, so being able to join a community with other Burmese helps ease some of the stress, he said. That’s why a local community like the one that’s grown on the southside will continue to grow, Maung said.
About 700 new Burmese come to Indianapolis each year through the U.S. refugee resettlement program, Varga said. Most of those new refugees are sent to Indianapolis because they know someone from their village, a friend or family member who is living here, he said.
In the early 1990s when Maung Shane’s family moved to Brownsburg, there were few Burmese families in central Indiana. Since then, Chin pastors established communities on the southside, and new refugees began to come to the area to be around other Burmese who understood their background and culture, said Shane, who works as a nurse and Burmese outreach coordinator for Franciscan St. Francis Health.
The number of Burmese workers at KYB has grown mainly due to word of mouth as workers share their experience with friends and family, said Monica Cosentino, a First Call Staffing agent who does temp hiring for KYB. The Burmese workers share that they’re getting good wages and benefits, and more people apply, she said.
KYB has had an easier time hiring Burmese workers, who have been more willing to take entry-level jobs and work their way up than Americans, KYB director of administration Lance Clark said. The company recently promoted its first Burmese worker to a supervisor position, so immigrants are starting to advance in the company as well, he said.
The turnover rate among Burmese workers has been lower than for American employees, Consentino said.
Even though many of the workers struggle with language barriers, they work as hard as they can because for the first time in their lives they might have a stable job and home life, Maung said.
“Everyone is serious. You normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to work hard and earn their own life,” Maung said.
Communication is still one of the main issues Burmese residents face in settling into the area. Maung said he speaks nearly fluently and gets better every day, but he had started learning English while living in Singapore. And Americans speak so fast that it can be hard for a new learner to keep up, he said.
Local groups have been able to make an easier transition for Burmese by providing translators and community education programs.
Maung has been able translate work documents and signs and lead trainings in Chin for new workers, while also teaching English courses twice a week at the plant that employees get paid to attend. Burmese community programs help teach English and allow refugees who have been here for years to help newcomers find jobs or get services they need, Maung said.
The first generation of refugees has clustered together to build a support network, but the second and third generations of Burmese that are raised in the area will be the ones who decide whether they will spread out farther than just Indianapolis and adopt more of the American culture, Shane said.
“They determine whether our culture moves on as a whole. They’re going to have to keep that in mind. You definitely don’t want to forget where your mom and dad came from, but they’ll decide what happens next,” Shane said.