More than 2,000 women, men and children mostly in traditional dress and from as far away as New York, Texas and Virginia gathered Sunday for the opening of Masjid Noor ul-Islam on the city's south side.
"This means a lot to us because this is the first mosque built in the United States by the Burmese community, and not just in the United States, but in the whole world. So these are really great feelings we have," said Ye Win Latt, secretary of the Burmese Muslim Education and Community Center, which started the project in 2010.
Of the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Burmese immigrants living in Fort Wayne, about 2,000 are Muslim, Latt said. The city has one of the largest Burmese refugee communities in the U.S. Muslim and Christian Burmese have been oppressed in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. More than 30 mosques have been destroyed in Myanmar, Latt said.
"Building a brand new mosque here will give the people hope," Latt said. The first phase includes prayer space where about 150 men can pray in the front of the building, and a women's section holds about 20. Mosque officials said both spaces will eventually expand.
The mosque is projected to cost $1.1 million when additional phases, including classrooms, are completed.
"We go from house to house to get donations. People donate from $5-10 to a few thousand dollars. We have been collecting those donations, small donations, every month in the last five years, and that's how we got this far," Latt said. Retired refugee case worker Fred Gilbert, who began working with Burmese immigrants in 1991, said having a place to worship is critical for refugees to feel at home.
"To the Islamic community, it's like world-shaking," Fred Gilbert said. "It's an example of what communities do when they come, and that is take what they bring and combine it with freedom and do what they cannot do in their home countries in many cases." Mayor Tom Henry was among those attending the opening.
"For quite some time, we've tried to be an inclusive community," Henry said. "We've been working with the Burmese to let them know they are a part of our community, and as long as they're hardworking and productive members of our community, they are more than welcome."