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50,000 a Year : Indochinese Find Haven, Pain in U.S.

VIETNAM: A Decade Later

May 01, 1985|PETER H. KING and DAVID HOLLEY | Times Staff Writers

A decade later, and the exodus has not ended. Almost every day, in the rear seats of commercial jetliners, behind the usual assortment of tourists, business travelers and other transpacific passengers, hundreds of Indochinese are borne into this country as refugees.

Fifty thousand of them--refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia--still come to the United States each year. They arrive, almost unnoticed, at standard airport passenger terminals in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle. Papers are processed, belongings searched and then each is given a new winter jacket and sent off into the land, to begin an awkward process of cultural grafting that will take even the best of them years to complete.

Some appear at least marginally prepared for the task. Others are woefully unfit, waif-like peasants baffled by the Huggies disposable diapers distributed to child-toting refugees at the airport.

Ordeal of Assimilation

The wisest arrive with eyes wide open, for the experience of the 735,000 Indochinese refugees who have preceded them demonstrates that assimilation into America will be an ordeal exceeded in difficulty only by their actual escape from war and its retributions.

In this time of American reflection on the Vietnam experience, much attention has been paid to successes among the refugees, the valedictorians and millionaires, the thoroughly capitalistic entrepreneurs who have transformed lackluster neighborhoods into thriving "Little Saigons."

President Reagan, in his State of the Union address this year, praised a Vietnamese refugee who has done well at West Point; a newcomer from Cambodia won an Academy Award.

While these examples are remarkable, they do not, according to social workers, researchers and refugees themselves, represent the norm. Rather, the 10-year anniversary of Saigon's fall finds a great number of refugees still struggling mightily to find their economic and social footing in America.

"We do want people to know there are success stories," said Vu Duc Vuong, executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement in San Francisco, "but at the same time, they obscure the reality. The reality is that for any one refugee who has success, there are three others who do not yet have it--and still others who are coming."

A U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement survey report released in January said half the refugees polled are living below the poverty level. Unemployment rates run well above the national average, and studies have shown that the bulk of those who do have jobs are underemployed. In California, home to an estimated 291,000 of the refugees, roughly 60% receive welfare benefits.

There are other hardships that cannot be measured by such barometers as income levels or employment statistics. The refugees have been through a lot, and it has taken a toll.

For example, when a Cambodian in Fresno wrote his life story for a class project, the three-page summary included descriptions of two wars, life in a slave labor camp, drinking foul water to survive, the starvation deaths of his father and two younger sisters and, finally, a four-day run through a mine-laden jungle to Thailand:

'Most People Died'

"Some people were killed on the way, and some were hurt. Some stepped on a mine, and it blew their bodies apart. Some got shot. The bullets and bombs were all over in the air like a group of birds. Most people died on the way."

The author was 13 years old.

Mental health is emerging as a major concern. Family relations strain under demands of the new culture. Self-pride drops in proportion to living standards.

Fear, guilt, nostalgia and nightmares tumble together when thoughts turn, as they often do, to people and places and horrors left behind. Depression, frustration, confusion all weigh heavily on the refugees, although the darkness is not always apparent to the outside world.

"We are always smiling," said Mai Cong, a refugee who works as a mental health specialist in Orange County, "although maybe it is a storm inside."

Studies have shown that, as a group, the Indochinese refugees suffer from abnormal amounts of depression.

"It is hard for us to fathom the psychological adjustment that a refugee must make," Judy Chu, a psychologist with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, testified before the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations last month.

"It is not surprising," she testified, "that research has found refugees to have a high and continuing level of depression, especially those who have suffered a setback in their socioeconomic level. Doctors must now work as janitors or factory workers. Refugees may realize that they are being exploited at a laborer's job, but they must repress such depressing thoughts."

Elders have it especially tough. Traditionally family leaders, they now perceive themselves as having little applicable wisdom to offer.

'I Am an Old Rag'

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