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From Job Skills To People Skills: Learning U.S. Ways

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From Job Skills To People Skills: Learning U.S. Ways

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From Job Skills To People Skills: Learning U.S. Ways

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Fort Wayne, Indiana, has become a destination of sorts, for immigrants from troubled countries - Bosnia, Darfur, Burma. And that has led to some cultural misunderstandings. Our next story comes out of one in particular. A laundromat recently posted a sign saying ethnic Burmese were not welcome. Apparently, they'd been spitting a tobacco-like substance on the floor. Here's Erika Celeste.

ERIKA CELESTE: From the outside, Fort Wayne, Indiana, may look like a typical white bred Midwestern community, but the city of 250,000 deals with multiple cultural challenges and obstacles everyday.

That's, in large part, because the U.S. State Department uses Fort Wayne extensively as a refugee resettlement site. It now houses the largest Burmese community in the country. Minn Myint Nan Tin is with the Burmese Advocacy Center here. She says keeping the melting pot from boiling over is sometimes a delicate balancing act.

Ms. MINN MYINT NAN TIN (Burmese Advocacy Center): Sometimes people need to take time to adjust in a new place, in a new culture, a new system, and you cannot excuse it either, you know, if your behavior it doesn't matter if you're American or Burmese or Latin or African.

CELESTE: Nearly all refugees here frequent the Refugee Resource Center. It offers services and classes in everything from how to clean a home, to proper indoor plumbing etiquette. These are sometimes new concepts for people who have only lived in rural villages or refugee camps.

Phyu Phyu Aye, a Burmese refugee who's been in the U.S. for a decade, teaches sewing, but advises her students on many cultural issues.

Ms. PHYU PHYU AYE: (Foreign language spoken)

CELESTE: She explains that it's important to look into an Americans' eyes when speaking. That's different than the more reverent Asian custom of looking at the ground.

Students taking a computer class in an adjoining room overhear our discussion and the teacher comes over to join in. Nyein Kyaoo says he repeatedly reminds students of the most basic things, like not driving without a license.

Mr. NYEIN KYAOO: Just some, they drive like really crazy because they never be drive before.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) probably like, you know, American movies.

Mr. KYAOO: Yeah. Now, they watch the movie and they act like a movie star.

CELESTE: Across town, the Multicultural Council is meeting. This is a group of first responders who work to reduce cultural barriers during emergencies. Director Irene Paxia is originally from Italy.

She says language barriers waste precious time in emergencies. Paxia gives an example of being confused after a car accident. Instead of dialing 911, she dialed 118, the number she would have used in Italy.

Ms. IRENE PAXIA (Multicultural Council): Just right away I was brought back to reality, how things can be difficult for me as well.

CELESTE: To help reduce these barriers, council members go door-to-door distributing magnetic emergency cards to refugees and immigrants. In a crisis, first responders know to check the card on the refrigerator for the victim's language and other key information.

But first responders face another obstacle. Many immigrants come from countries where officials are considered corrupt and crimes go unreported. During the Multicultural Council meeting, volunteer Lili Carroll and firefighter Jim Murua worry that this makes refugees afraid to report crimes here.

Ms. LILI CARROLL: That's the crucial part as well. The policemen should also be wearing their uniforms.

Mr. JIM MURUA (Firefighter): I had a few of my inspectors come out, educators come out, and they did it in plain clothes first and then put their uniforms on and came out and said, hey look, we're the same person. Don't be afraid of us. And this all came out...

CELESTE: While Irene Paxia knows Fort Wayne's not perfect, she's quick to note that it is a three-time All-America City, largely because of these comprehensive refugee and immigrant programs.

The laundromat incident was addressed through these programs, too. The company offered a public apology, donated funds for diversity training and changed its signs. Instead of targeting the people, it now targets the offensive act and says: no spitting.

For NPR News, I'm Erika Celeste in Fort Wayne.

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