• U.S.

REFUGEES: Getting a Foot On the Ladder

4 minute read

A few months ago, Fort Chaffee was the ninth largest city in Arkansas. Just before Christmas, 25 Vietnamese men, women and children boarded an army bus and headed for Tennessee, reducing the Fort’s refugee population to zero. Three other resettlement camps, through which more than 130,000 Indo-Chinese refugees passed, are also virtual ghost towns. This week, the first phase of the $500 million-plus resettlement effort officially came to an end.

For many of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who fled to the U.S. when their governments collapsed last April, the problems are just beginning. According to the Federal Government, 23,768 refugees are on welfare and another 4,374 have applied for public assistance of some sort.

Food Stamps. In California, whose refugee population of 27,351 is the highest in the nation, more than 9,000 are receiving full unemployment aid; another 8,900 are getting other forms of relief ranging from medical care to food stamps. In Oregon, 1,400 out of 2,000 refugees are on welfare. More than 40% of those who have managed to find jobs are earning less than $2,500 a year, and nearly 70% are earning less than $5,000. Says Richard Friedman, regional director of HEW for six Midwestern states: “Within a year or so, I expect we’ll see these people begin to move up the economic ladder. They are a very intelligent, resilient, resourceful people.” Many now work as filling-station attendants, messengers or office clerks. Tran Dinh Chi was once principal of a Saigon high school; now he earns $2.40 an hour as a part-time maintenance man in Michigan. Nguyen An Minh, formerly vice president of a commercial bank, is unemployed in New Orleans largely because he speaks no English. An ex-general is serving as a headwaiter at a Pennsylvania restaurant. Some jobs offered to refugees have fallen through; when a gardening firm in Pomona, Calif., went bankrupt last year, about 200 Vietnamese found themselves out of work. Many refugees may flock at first to areas of high unemployment because large numbers of their compatriots have already gathered there. When the resettlement camp at California’s Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base closed down Oct. 31, the refugee population of San Diego more than doubled.

There have, of course, been successes. Some skilled mechanics, welders and fishermen have been able to resume careers in the U.S. In Grannis, Ark., 200 refugees found jobs at a chicken-processing facility. Some Vietnamese are eager to offer their unique cultural resources to their new communities. Refugees in New Orleans are considering opening a Vietnamese restaurant and crafts boutique in a shopping center.

The refugees’ reception has varied widely. In Indiantown Gap, Pa., the idea of a refugee camp was viewed with hostility by the stolid Pennsylvania Dutch residents of Lebanon County. Within a month of the refugees’ arrival, though, local sentiment changed. Volunteers offered clothing and blankets and took Vietnamese children on tours of the countryside. Eventually 420 refugees settled in the area. Less pleasant was the experience of the 42 refugees who went to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to work in a candy factory. Complaining of bad treatment, 15 or so of them left their jobs; their employer claimed that the Vietnamese expected everything to be given to them without their having to work for it.

Many Vietnamese who witnessed U.S. extravagance in their own country expected to find the same in the States. One family, hearing of countrymen who had been given a car by their American sponsors, concluded that they should have looked more carefully for the same kind of sponsor. “Many Vietnamese thought that since the U.S. Government had brought them here, it was fully responsible for settling them,” notes Tsich Tsien An, a Buddhist monk from Saigon now living in Los Angeles. “Gradually they have realized that they have to stand up for themselves.”

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