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Burmese Muslims building new mosque in Fort Wayne

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 12:01 am

There is a new mosque going up on the south side of Fort Wayne. It's the first time since the mid-1970s, either inside or outside of Burma that a new Burmese Muslim mosque is being built.

“This is a historic event,” said Ye Win Latt.

Although there have recently been some democratic reforms in Myanmar, one thing that has not change Ye Win Latt said is the persecution of Muslims. More than 30 mosques have been destroyed there in the past several years. Historically this is nothing new. Every time the government is in a difficult situation, it tries to turn the attention of the public away from the politics and turn it into a religious conflict. They can change their clothing, they can change their system, but it is still the same people driving the government, said Ye Win Latt.

“Building a brand new mosque here will give the people hope,” Ye Win Latt said.

The Mosque and Learning Center, 2121 Seddlemeyer Ave. was designed by Grinsfelder Associates Architects, Inc, and is owned by the Burmese Muslim Education and Community Center.

Since the purchase of the property in 2011 they have had a few gatherings. As a community they cut down the trees and prepared the land for the building of the mosque which will happen in four phases. It will take years for the final phase to be completed because they are raising all the money for the structure through donations from the Fort Wayne Muslim community, and a few from the Burmese Muslim community in the United States. Phase one of the project is halfway completed; they hope to finish phase one by the end of the next year. Of course they still have a lot of fundraising to do to make this possible. They will have seating for 175 when the first phase is complete.

The first phase includes a central area for prayer for the men and a smaller area for the women along with two small education rooms. In the next phase of the project they will take out the half-wall in the back and expand the building. When the project is eventually finished, it will have two wings on it. A parking lot with 50 spaces, along with a drainage pond to handle the runoff, is also in the plans. When all four phases are done, the parking lot will have room for 100 cars.

Last Nov. 17, they held a special ceremony for the foundation of the building. Hundreds of Muslim Burmese from across the country came to the historic event. The number of cars parked on the street, and the number of people on the property upset some of the neighbors in the quiet residential area because they couldn't get their cars out of their driveways and there were some cars parked on their property.

Events like that are not the norm, Ye Win Latt said. Because it was an historic event many people came. Normally for any given prayer service there are only a handful of people. The exception to that would be on a Friday, but it would only be people from the Fort Wayne community, and 50 parking spaces can easily accommodate them. When all four phases of the building are complete there will be a computer lab, a library, classroom space, a worship area for the women and the large space for the men to worship in. Besides a house of worship they will use the building to teach language, job skills, and classes to help newer refugees adjust to living in the United States culture. They see the building as a means to help them become a part of Fort Wayne and to have a place of their own to worship in.

Todd Stein who lives just south of the property said he was surprised that they are building a mosque there, because he thought it had was zoned as a residential property. He and his wife have foster children, and they are worried about how fast people visiting the site have been driving down the road and the lack of respect some of the visitors have shown about private property. Referring to the gathering in November, he said there were more than 200 there, and cars were parked up and down the street and on the property adjacent to the road. As far as he could see. there were only two portable toilets. Stein said they ended up calling the police to clear out the bottleneck on the street.

Stein would like to see the city to widen the road and put in curbs so that the cars cannot park on the edge of other people's property. His property is on the inside curve and he people traveling through the neighborhood sometimes cut through the edge of his lawn when they make the turn. Stein works for a cement company and had offered to do the work himself but was told by the City because it was a chip and seal road cement curbs would not work.

Becky Vongunten and her husband Larry, 2111 Seddlemeyer Ave, live next door to the new Mosque. Vongunten said when the organization first acquired the property in 2011 a lot of young people from the Burmese community would come out and play soccer on the property. There was no running water or restrooms. She was concerned and called the Allen County Department of Health who said she would need evidence of unsanitary practices before they could investigate, but she never followed up. She and her husband are both in their early 60s and were planning on staying on in their home when they retire. They were no longer sure they wanted to do so because of the noise and traffic next door. Now two years later things have quieted down and for the past six months they have seen no progress on the construction of the building.

“We are in a wait-and-see mode,” Vongunten said.

Vongunten said the last really large gathering there was in November, although on some weekends there are gatherings on the property where food and clothing items are sold. She was wondering if they had a permit to do this. Like Stein, Vongunten was wondering why in a neighborhood she thought was zoned to be residential a house of worship was allowed to be built. Because of the ongoing construction Vongunten said there is always either dust or mud in their street.

John Perlich, director of information for the City of Fort Wayne, said the property was purchase in 2011 from the Allen County CDC, for $5,000 by the Burmese Muslim Education Center. The owners were issued an ILP (Improvement Location Permit) from Department of Planning Services on 8/6/12. The owners hired Schenkel Schultz construction, which has been issued building permits (10/30/12), electrical permits (11/1/12) and plumbing permits (4/9/13). City of Fort Wayne Neighborhood Code Enforcement has no complaints or active cases with the property. The road Perlich said is chip and seal and because of that cannot have curbs.

Ye Win Latt said the first year they owned the property young people from their community would come out and play soccer and they were happy to have them there. They knew where they were, what they were doing. They didn't have to worry about them being on the street and getting involved with drugs or gangs. Now that the building is going up there is less room for soccer, and they have tried to keep any activities the neighbors might find noisy away from the property lines. They will be building a fence around the property and although under city code only a six foot fence is required they are looking into building an 8-foot fence. They will also be planting trees all around the property to give them a little more privacy. Ye Win Latt said he has been in communication with the neighbors and they have been watering down the dusty site to cause less dust in the neighborhood. He has also spoken to members about driving more slowly through the neighborhood. They have been trying their best for a peaceful, cooperative relationship with the neighbors. They plan on being in the neighborhood for a long time.

“Any time they have had a problem I have responded,” Ye Win Latt said.

A portable toilette is now in the site so when they host fundraisers for the Mosque, selling food, people have a restroom available. Ye Win Latt said they chose to build in the neighborhood because of the size and reasonable cost of the property and the proximity of the high number of members who live in the area. One of their member lives directly behind the site and he keeps an eye on the construction site.