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Viet Refugees Prepare for Culture Shock

On their way to Finland, farmers from remote highlands learn about snow, ATM cards, supermarkets and letting police help them.

June 19, 2005|Miranda Leitsinger | Associated Press Writer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Coming from one of the poorest and most remote parts of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese refugees were understandably confused and amused as they learned about their new home.

Saunas, snow, supermarkets.

The 17 farmers -- who fled their homeland last year, clambered through the Cambodian jungle and were rescued by the United Nations -- were preparing to reach their final stop: Finland. They are Montagnards, who fled Vietnam's Central Highlands over land confiscations and their Protestant faith. The U.N. cares for about 650 refugees in Cambodia, with more trickling in.

In May, with 78 Montagnards preparing to leave for Finland, Saed Guled of the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration in Helsinki gave them a lesson on what to expect: an apartment, language classes, help from a social worker and a translator. Then came an introduction to ATM cards; the subway (they seemed to have difficulty imagining a train running underground), and the supermarket, where no bargaining is permitted, Guled said.

Some wrote key words on their arms, such as euro and Nokia (the name of the Finnish cellphone maker), and peppered Guled with questions and fears.

Siu Giuh, about 20, asked whether he would make Finnish friends and whether they would visit him at his home. Guled, a refugee from Somalia who fled to Finland 15 years ago, assured him that he would.

He also asked what would happen if he got lost. Ask any passer-by, Guled said, or a police officer -- a notion that drew laughter, since the Montagnards apparently aren't used to turning to the authorities for help.

Another said he didn't know Finnish, so could he still go there? The language would come to him in time, Guled said.

Many asked about family reunification. Guled said their families could join them.

The keys to success, he told them, were learning Finnish and being active.

Outside the counseling session, Guled acknowledged his anxieties for his charges, some of whom are illiterate and speak only their minority language.

"They have to start from zero.... They have to go through the basics, study how to read and write, and then they must also deal with a different culture. I hope that they don't give up."

About 3,000 Vietnamese live in Finland, but it's doubtful that any of them were Montagnards.

The Montagnards won't settle in the same place. Twenty-seven have left for Oulu, about 360 miles north of Helsinki. Guled said his class would probably settle in Hanko, a resort on Finland's southernmost tip.

For many, the journey to a strange land thousands of miles from their families and villages is bittersweet. "I am so sad because ... I left my family and my country. I am so far from my country," said Hving Nang. He hopes to have his wife and two sons join him in Finland.

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