Executive Director of the Burmese American Community Institute
A refugee from Burma/Myanmar, Elaisa came to the Hoosier state for a degree – but stayed to advocate for Indiana’s growing Burmese refugee population.
Elaisa Vahnie is a leader, an advocate, and a powerful force for good in the Indianapolis community. A refugee with a passion for democracy and humanitarian efforts, Vahnie overcame many barriers to help co-found the Burmese American Community Institute (BACI). But his path to success was neither straightforward nor easy.
Born in Burma/Myanmar, Elaisa Vahnie fled his native country in 1996—after facing arrest for participating in the pro-democracy movement. He first traveled to India, until he was awarded a scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to study at Indiana University. This honor left Vahnie conflicted, but he eventually chose to accept and move to the United States.
“I felt so blessed and humbled for the opportunity,” said Vahnie. “At the same time, it was a challenge. It was a completely new environment, and everything was different. It was also exciting because this country offers a lot of hope. It’s where you can dream, and I was so grateful to be able to travel this far.”
After earning his Bachelor’s degree in 2006, Vahnie went back to Southeast Asia, serving as an International United Nations Volunteer Specialist in Malaysia. He worked with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for two years, helping with refugee protection and resettlement. During his time there, he sponsored a policy to guarantee all Burmese ethnic groups would receive equal access to protection. He also successfully advocated for the smooth processing of third-country resettlement for Burmese refugees.
Vahnie then returned to Indiana University to obtain his Master’s degree in public affairs, focusing on policy analysis and comparative international affairs. He continued to volunteer and advocate for refugees, and he felt a strong responsibility to help local refugees become productive, self-sufficient citizens. So, in 2011, Vahnie partnered with other community members to launch a new organization: the Burmese American Community Institute.
The Burmese American Community Institute (BACI) provides services and programs to support the Burmese community both in Indiana and across the globe. They assist with everything from integration and citizenship, to advocacy and civic engagement, to job placement and language education. Over the years, BACI has also developed basic necessity programs to assist with health, housing, and food.
“It’s cyclical,” said Vahnie. “Coming here as a refugee, being able to be successful and contribute in many ways—such as in education and business—and provide better help for both the Burmese in Burma and the region as a whole is a win-win.”
According to the U.S. Department of State and the BACI survey, over 182,000 Burmese refugees have been admitted to the United States since 2000 as of July 2022. While over 40,000 Burmese individuals are residing in Indiana, nearly 27,000 of them are calling Indianapolis their new home.
Since 2011, BACI has helped more than 17,000 people adjust to life in the United States. With their help, the college attendance rate of Burmese youth in Central Indiana has skyrocketed from 69% in 2015 to 93% in 2022. BACI also started the National University of the Union of Myanmar—a community institute with expertise in all aspects of Burma, including human rights, education, leadership training, and public policy.
Today, Elaisa Vahnie remains the Executive Director of the Burmese American Community Institute, leading their continued efforts to help Burmese people through foreign policy advocacy and service. Thanks to Vahnie’s accomplishments, BACI has helped support the Burmese community in both Indiana and Burma/Myanmar. And in the coming years, BACI plans to further strengthen its programming, as they respond to the community’s emerging needs.