Welcome To Chindianapolis

Southport, Indiana, volunteer police officer Bawi Lian prepares a felony arrest. He is a Burmese Chin refugee who came to the United States as a teenager. "I want to give back to my community," he says. When he isn't on duty, Lian works in the human resources department at Penske Logistics in Shelbyville, where many Chin immigrants are employed.

Photo by Steve Raymer

Most of Indy’s south side doesn’t look much different than it did 30 years ago—fast-food joints, tidy ranch homes, and strip malls. But if you drive down Madison Avenue near Southport Road and look closely, you might notice a cluster of signs written in Burmese. Asian supermarkets and restaurants dot the landscape. Burmese accountants and real-estate agents have hung their shingles. It’s an unusual pocket of diversity for the south side, which for years was overwhelmingly white.

Since 2000, waves of Burmese refugees have been fleeing ethnic and religious persecution in their home country and seeking asylum in the United States. Burmese Chin, a mostly Christian minority group, have chosen Southport as their new home. Today, almost 20,000 Chin live on the south side, making it one of the largest concentrations of Chin people outside of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Access to employment, low housing prices, and an abundance of Christian churches appealed to them, and their presence is making a remarkable impact.

The road here was not easy. When we spent time with the community last winter, some recalled being tortured by the now-defunct military junta in Myanmar, which tried to force the Chin to abandon their cultural practices and adopt the country’s widely practiced religion of Buddhism. Some spoke of escaping forced labor and human trafficking. Some didn’t want to talk at all. For many, this is their third country, with stints at refugee camps in between. Most arrived with nothing, and after aid from local groups like Exodus Refugee Immigration ran out, all were expected to be completely self-sufficient within a few months.

Yet here they are: working hard, learning English, opening businesses, purchasing houses, giving back to their community, and becoming U.S. citizens. They’re helping to rebuild Southport’s economy, which has been hobbled by the loss of manufacturing jobs. The Chin are breathing life and color into the south side, which has been affectionately nicknamed “Chindianapolis.”

Photographs by Steve Raymer.

Using a traditional Southeast Asian baby carriage, Chin refugee Tail Lang-Mon waits with her infant Abust Peng Baceli for assistance at the Indiana Chin Center in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Southport. The Chin Center offers many resources to the community, including English language classes and employment support.

Miriam Mawi (center), who teaches biology at Southport High School, is probably the first Chin educator in the state. “I think it’s important for students to see a teacher who looks like them,” she says. “Southport High School embraces our diversity and offers a lot of support.” That hasn’t always been true of the larger community, however. Scientists still haven’t determined COVID-19’s country of origin, but because the president and others have speculated it began in China, many Asian Americans have faced racism during the pandemic. “I personally haven’t experienced it, but I do know other Chins who have,” Mawi says.

Father of three and barbershop owner Mas Lawm Mawi discusses how the U.S. contrasts with Myanmar while keeping busy in his shop on Madison Avenue. “In Myanmar, there are no requirements,” he says. “Here, if I want to cut hair, I need 1,500 hours of training first.” He worked nights at the Amazon warehouse to support his family while he was in barber school.

Tribal leader Than Hre is one of the original Chin refugees in Southport. He owns Chin Brothers Restaurant and Grocery, which he runs with his wife, Biak, and son John. The pandemic has hurt their business, but they’re finding ways to survive. “We closed completely for two weeks back in March,” Biak says. “After that, we reopened, but it has been slow ever since.”

While many of the Chin people here are Baptist, some are Catholics who attend St. Mark Catholic Church, a diverse southside parish. Here, students kneel in prayer during an all-school Mass. The elementary school has more than 200 Chin youth enrolled.

The bustling Chin Brothers Restaurant and Grocery offers residents more than just a taste of home. It serves as a community meeting place, reminiscent of the tea shops back in Myanmar.

ESL instructor Lori Eades (right) teaches English at the Chin Center. Their culture is based on an oral tradition, with very little written history. But Chin languages and English at least have the Latin alphabet in common, as opposed to the syllabic script used in Burmese. 

Run Tha Hlei Par and Van Biak Lian play with their son Samuel at home. Lian experienced violence, forced labor, and religious persecution before fleeing to the U.S. almost 10 years ago. In Indy, he has found driving for Uber to be a lucrative way to support his family. The bare feet seen here are not unusual for Chins, even in winter. Many of them wear flip-flops outside year-round.

Monica Vung San Nuam of the Zomi tribe of Chin arrived in Indianapolis with her family in 2016. She began volunteering at St. Mark Catholic School when her children started school, and moved into a full-time paid position as an instructional assistant in 2019.

Not permitted to attend university in Myanmar, Lun Pieper arrived in Indianapolis in 2001 for an undergraduate education, unaware there would soon be an influx of refugees from her homeland here. Pieper went on to study law and become a prosecutor and, now, Indiana Supreme Court official. She is a founding member of the Burmese American Community Institute, headquartered on the south side.

Almost 100 new U.S. citizens, nearly half from Myanmar, take the oath of citizenship before U.S. District Court Judge Robyn Moberly at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. Perry Township resident and former Southport High School student Cdin Thanga Cherput (green jacket, lower right) is among the many Chin natives at the naturalization ceremony, where Moberly reminds those in attendance how immigrants continue to build and shape our country.

Chin refugee Jones Zaa Thang has lived in Indy for five years and is an employee at the Amazon Fulfillment Center near the airport. Here, he displays his U.S. flag proudly after the naturalization ceremony, where he took the oath of citizenship and registered to vote.

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