For the Asian refugee community of Southern California, last week was one of contrasts.
In Hawaiian Gardens, a Cambodian immigrant who had been in the United States for five months killed himself and two of his children. Neighbors said he was unemployed.
Throughout the area, other refugees continued to struggle for the necessities most Americans take for granted.
But at Long Beach City College, a quiet celebration took place. It was a graduation of sorts. LBCC President John McKuen said he was proud to be there. Beverly O'Neill, vice president of student and community services, called it a significant event. And in the audience, an estimated 250 refugee-students raptly observed a spectacle that organizers hoped would inspire.
The object of their attention was 35 fellow students considered to have made it. The event: the college's first-ever "new American" award presentations to formerly unskilled refugees now successfully employed.
The program was orchestrated by Ding-Jo Currie, coordinator of the campus Refugee Assistance Program.
"We should have done this a long time ago," said Currie, a native of China who immigrated to the United States 15 years ago. "In coming to this country, the refugees have many, many hardships. We want these to serve as role models for the rest of our students to show them that it may be hard now, but if they stay with it they can succeed."
"It," for Currie, is the yearlong refugee assistance program run by the college, consisting of job-related English-as-a-second-language classes, employment counseling and placement, and internships with public agencies and companies.
Of the 500 students in the program, said Currie, about 30% to 40% are placed immediately in jobs upon completion of the yearlong course. Since beginning its work in 1979, she said, the program has found work for some 2,000 to 3,000 new refugees.
The 35 recognized at the awards ceremony were from last year's crop.
Like Sophearom Khai, a young Cambodian who began helping doctors during his three-year stay in a refugee camp in Thailand and now works as a medical assistant at Rose Family Medical Clinic in Long Beach.
Learns Step by Step
"The program helped me a lot," said Khai, 23, whose ambition is to become a doctor. His biggest problem so far: understanding difficult medical terms in English. "But I'm learning them step by step," he said.
Or My Huynh, a Vietnamese woman who recently landed a job as a production assembly worker at Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics in Santa Ana.
"We have to work very fast," said Huynh, 37, "but it is a good job. When I first came here I went on many interviews and I felt very nervous and embarrassed." With the help of the program, she said, she overcame her embarrassment and began the path to success.
Present to help honor these new members of the American labor force were some of the employers who had ushered them into it. Wade Cunningham of Sevenstrand Tackle Corp. in Huntington Beach said she was impressed with the dedication of her company's new Asian workers.
"It's exciting to see people who care about their jobs and do good work," she told the honorees. "I'm happy to see you all becoming part of America."
Good Work Habits
Dell Shoburg of Santa Ana's Delton Scientific Co. said he was pleased with the work habits of his Asian employees. "The Vietnamese have helped us a lot," he said.
It hasn't all been easy for the immigrants, of course. In interviews after the presentations, both they and their employers spoke of the occasional strain of adjusting to the American work environment. At times, said Fred Sherburne of Sherburne Manufacturing Co., the resulting problems have even led to humorous encounters.
Once, for instance, he asked an Asian, "Where are the rest of them?" Thinking he was being asked for the location of the restroom, the man replied that it was around the corner. The exchange illustrates what Sherburne considers the major problem facing the immigrants in America: lack of communication skills.
But even with such misunderstandings, he said, the average Asian immigrant works harder than the average American worker. "These guys are hungry," Sherburne said of his Asian employees. "The average American gets slack."
His only concern regarding the Asians? "I hope they don't become too Americanized," he said.