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A Tale of Two Sisters : One in U.S. Struggles to Save Other in Limbo of Thai Refugee Camp

July 15, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

They last saw each other on the Cambodian border in November of 1979, two sisters whose lives took unexpectedly divergent paths.

One sister, Dary Nou, and her family chose to make the dangerous border crossing into Thailand. United Nations-assisted refugee camps had been set up there in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that toppled the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cadres. Thousands of Cambodian refugees in the border camps eventually would be resettled in the United States and other nations. Dary and her husband, Meng Seak, didn't know much about the United States, but they knew it was the "freedom country."

The other sister, Sarum Nou, stayed behind with her husband, two other sisters and their mother, who had become ill on the long walk to the border. They told Meng and Dary that they would try to cross later when it was safer.

Their decision to stay behind has made a world of difference in the lives that the two families now lead.

After spending nearly two years in a refugee camp on the Thai border, Dary, Meng and their 5-year-old daughter, Eng, were processed and sent, via the Philippines, to the United States. Eventually, they moved to Long Beach in their quest for a share of the American pie.

Sarum and their other relatives, however, weren't as fortunate.

By the time they crossed into Thailand in 1984, the Thai government no longer was processing refugees for resettlement. Stuck in a border camp, provided with food, shelter and little else, they are classified as "displaced persons." Unable to register as formal refugees or to be interviewed for potential third-country resettlement, they live in a limbo of uncertainty.

Dary's only link with her mother, sisters and brother are the monthly letters she receives from Sarum, letters that describe the hardships that her family must endure.

Their only hope of getting out is Dary.

The Thai government occasionally allows certain families and individuals to leave the camp for resettlement in another country if they have a close relative living there who will sponsor them.

Dary has gone to the Santa Ana office of the International Rescue Committee, a nondenominational voluntary agency, and filled out the preliminary paper work for filing an immigrant visa petition.

But it is not that simple.

In order to proceed, Dary first must become a U.S. citizen.

She has met the five-year residency requirement, but before she can apply for naturalization she must be able to read, write and speak enough English to pass the U.S. government and history test administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

For Dary, who still speaks only a little English, that is proving to be a major hurdle.

But even when Dary learns enough English to take the citizenship test, "it takes a long time in Southern California to become a U.S. citizen because the INS is absolutely swamped here," said Alicia Cooper, Orange County area director of the International Rescue Committee, one of six voluntary agencies in the county that resettle refugees. INS officials say it takes three to four months after submitting a citizenship application to receive an appointment for a preliminary interview.

And even then, Cooper said, Dary has "a major problem" if she wants to bring all of her relatives here.

"When you apply" for an immigration visa petition, Cooper said, "you must prove you're able to support this person, or persons . . . and that they will not (end up on) public welfare."

The New York City-based International Rescue Committee, founded in 1933, has helped to resettle refugees in Orange County since 1975, when waves of Vietnamese arrived at Camp Pendleton after the fall of Saigon. Although there are no U.S. Census Bureau statistics on the number of Southeast Asians in this country, Cooper said there are an estimated 70,000 in Orange County, the majority of whom are Vietnamese.

Southern California, however, is home to more Cambodians than any other area of the country, an estimated 70,000. Long Beach, with 35,000, has the third-highest concentration of Cambodians in the world, according to the United Cambodian Community, a nonprofit organization in Long Beach that serves all refugees. Only the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and the border camp in Thailand where Dary's relatives live, called Site 2, have more.

About 50% of the refugees arriving in Orange County through IRC are Southeast Asians (mostly Vietnamese) and about 50% are Eastern Europeans and Soviets, Cooper said. Although few Cambodian refugees have arrived in Orange County in recent years because of Thailand's policy of containing them in border camps, Cooper said the committee's Santa Ana office has filing cabinets full of affidavits of relationship from Cambodians, which is the basic paper work involved in matching a refugee in the camp with a relative in the United States.

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