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4:43 pm
Mon September 24, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi Makes Midwest Detour On U.S. Visit

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 5:11 pm

Transcript

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Aung San Suu Kyi is on her first trip to the U.S. in decades. After years under house arrest, she is now a member of parliament in Myanmar, also known as Burma. So far, she's collected honors and drawn crowds in the places you might expect: New York City, Washington, D.C. But tomorrow, she heads to a smaller community in the Midwest. Sean Bueter, of member station WBOI, explains where she's going and why.

SEAN BUETER, BYLINE: If you want to get a sense of the Burmese population in the U.S., there are few better places to go than here, Fort Wayne, Indiana. In the 1990s, as some Burmese fled political unrest at home, they came here as refugees. Officials estimate more than 4,000 in the Fort Wayne area, making this northern Indiana city home to one of the largest Burmese populations in the U.S. It's almost lunchtime at Shawnee Middle School in Fort Wayne, but in Carolyn Bookmyer's English as a second language class, the kids are hard at work writing a letter.

CAROLYN BOOKMYER: And you're going to write: How do you feel about what she's doing?

BUETER: Bookmyer wants her students to write to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who visits here tomorrow. One of those students is particularly excited to see Suu Kyi.

DAMA BE: I'm Dama, and I'm from Thailand. My parents are from Burma.

BUETER: Dama Be came to the U.S. in 2008. She and her friends have a dilemma.

BE: My friends are really excited to go to Aung San Suu Kyi speech with me, and we were so excited that we don't even know what to wear.

(LAUGHTER)

BUETER: You don't know what to wear?

BE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BUETER: Be says she's leaning toward wearing traditional Burmese clothing. She's not the only one excited for tomorrow's visit and speech. More than 7,000 people here are expected to attend Suu Kyi's appearance. To understand why she's coming here, just head to the south side of Fort Wayne, where you'll see signs in both English and Burmese welcoming Suu Kyi.

FRED GILBERT: Yeah. I mean, it's really a terribly interesting neighborhood.

BUETER: That's retired social worker Fred Gilbert, who helped many of the first refugees from Burma settle here in the 1990s. As we stand in a parking lot, he proudly points out Burmese-owned businesses in the area.

GILBERT: The Akaungzarr Asian Restaurant, that's a Burmese-owned restaurant opened about a year ago. Haircuts and Stylists. And then this is a Win Win PC store.

BUETER: The list goes on. Though there's no Chinatown or Little Italy here, there is a Little Burma neighborhood. In a grocery store called Little Burma, Hlawn Par-Maung is excited about Suu Kyi's visit and expects her to tell the truth about democratic progress in Burma.

HLAWN PAR-MAUNG: We love her, and we honor all the sacrifice that she did for our country. And now, they - a lot of women look at her, how powerful can she be, you know, in - being a woman. That's a woman's point of view.

BUETER: May Ayaroo will be among the 2,000 students expected to see Suu Kyi. Ayaroo left Burma when she was a child. Now a graduate student studying electrical engineering, she'll share the stage with Suu Kyi tomorrow.

MAY AYAROO: She means a lot to me. She means a lot to my life and how my life was affected. And knowing that the future is different for Burma and her symbol of coming here to Fort Wayne and being able to leave the country and still return, it means a lot.

BUETER: Ayaroo does not yet know what she'll say to Suu Kyi tomorrow, but she does know she'll say it in Burmese. For NPR News, I'm Sean Bueter in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.