GREENSBORO, N.C. — A band of 213 Montagnard refugees, many of whom fought alongside U.S. Green Berets during the Vietnam War, received a tumultuous airport welcome here Tuesday as they arrived in their new home.
Minutes before a chartered jet carrying the tribesmen touched down from Los Angeles, members of local church groups, Vietnam veterans' organizations, business leaders and a smattering of government officials began crowding into an airport waiting room, some holding brightly colored banners welcoming the Montagnards.
Greeted by Band
When the first few refugees entered the room, a local high school band broke into "This Land Is Your Land" and a crowd that numbered more than 400 began cheering. The applause continued until all of the Montagnards, many of them looking bewildered, were seated in rows of folding chairs.
"Early last year, I might have wondered, what is a Montagnard?" said Bill Britten, executive director of Lutheran Family Services, a nonprofit group that is coordinating the resettlement of the refugees in three North Carolina communities.
"But nobody has to ask that question today. You Montagnards have been some of America's greatest allies and friends during the Vietnam War, you have suffered greatly in the past 10 years and we are proud to welcome you to your new homes today."
The 213 refugees are the remnants of 5,000 rebels who took up arms against the victorious North Vietnamese troops when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Many of the Montagnard tribesmen, who inhabited the country's remote central highlands, were targeted for execution or imprisonment because they had fought on the American side during the war, said Rhama Dock, one of the group's leaders.
As the rebel soldiers battled the Vietnamese for 10 years, their numbers steadily dwindled and amounted to fewer than 300 at the beginning of 1984, Dock said. The fighting force finally sought asylum in a Thai refugee camp, because "we could fight no more . . . . For us, the war was over."
Coalition Lobbied for Help
When news of the Montagnards' arrival in the Thai camp reached the United States, a coalition of former Green Berets and other Americans who had worked with the tribesmen during the war began lobbying the U.S. State Department to grant them permission to resettle in America.
The group was approved for immigration earlier this year and flew to the United States on Monday, after a six-month cultural orientation course in the Philippines to acquaint them with American life.
State Department officials decided to resettle the group in North Carolina after Lutheran Family Services and other local charity groups offered to provide the refugees with jobs, housing and medical counseling.
Members of 41 church groups, each of which is sponsoring several Montagnards during their first few months in America, watched with excitement Tuesday as the refugees assigned to their care walked into the airport waiting lounge. Many said that they had helped find rental housing and jobs for the new arrivals and stocked their refrigerators with food.
Dock, who spoke on behalf of the Montagnards during Tuesday's welcoming ceremonies, told the crowd that "for so long, we have been afraid that we are unknown to the world, that the world has forgotten us. Today, we know that God has taken pity on our people and that we are no longer alone."