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Montagnards Resettle in North Carolina - 2002-06-04

Even though many Americans are worried about international terrorism and are taking extra precautions to protect themselves and their families, that nervousness apparently has not dampened the American spirit of generosity. Volunteers in the southeastern state of North Carolina are donating more of their time and money to help resettle hundreds of Southeast Asian refugees arriving on America's shores this month.

About 900 refugees from the highlands of Vietnam are being resettled in North Carolina this month. The people, known as Montagnards, have been living in refugee camps in Cambodia after fleeing from Vietnam last year.

The Montagnards are tribal people, culturally different from the Vietnamese, and speak a variety of dialects. They are mostly Christian and strong opponents of communism. During the Vietnam War, the Montagnards fought with U.S. troops against the North Vietnamese. When the communist government came to power in 1975, many Montagnards fled Vietnam. Those left behind say they have suffered discrimination and persecution.

Ama Kse, a member of the Montagnard Dega Association in North Carolina, explains: "The problem is the Vietnamese government took the ancestral land from the Montagnards. And they use Montagnard land to build up plantations - coffee plantations and rubber plantations. And also after 1975, the Vietnamese government brought a lot of Vietnamese population from many, many different provinces in Vietnam to the highlands. This has created a big problem because the Montagnards do not have enough knowledge and skill to compete with the Vietnamese population."

In February 2001, the Montagnards staged peaceful demonstrations, calling for religious freedom and protesting the government's encroachment on their tribal lands. When the government used force to end the protests, several hundred Montagnards fled to Cambodia.

Vietnam denies that it discriminates against the Montagnards or persecutes them for their religion, and Hanoi demanded the refugees be returned. After pressure from human rights groups, Cambodia agreed to let the people resettle in the United States. But Cambodia closed its camps and said any more Montagnard asylum seekers would be sent back to Vietnam.

Because the Montagnards had been so helpful to the U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War, many Special Forces soldiers who retired to North Carolina invited the first group of Montagnard refugees in 1986 to settle there. Later groups went to the state to join relatives or friends. Now, about 3,000 Montagnards live in North Carolina, which is the largest Montagnard community outside Vietnam. Ama Kse first went to France as a refugee in 1986. But in 1992 he went to North Carolina to help the Montagnards settling there. Ama Kse is a nickname. He asked that his real name not be used, to protect relatives still in Vietnam.

He and his colleagues in the Montagnard Dega Association will provide English lessons and transportation for the refugees arriving this month and help them find jobs. Ama Kse says nearly all the Montagnards in Vietnam are farmers, but in North Carolina most take jobs as laborers.

"Some of them work for companies like furniture companies, some of them work for K-Mart company, some of them work in textile companies," he explained. "They are doing very good."

He says the new arrivals will have to adjust to life in the United States - ideas like being on time and workplace discipline, which he says, are not part of farm life in the highlands of Vietnam.

"Many North Carolina church groups are sponsoring refugee families or groups of individual refugees," he said. "The churches find housing and provide money for rent or electricity payments.

Jeremy Eggleton is with the Lutheran Family Services Refugee Office in Raleigh, North Carolina's capital. "What we are trying to do is create a situation of independence for the refugees as quickly as possible," he said. "We are trying to minimize the dependency factor, and if we can get them set up in their own apartment, it kind of speeds them more quickly on the way towards normal life in the United States. And, of course, with that comes getting a job and we like to get them employed as quickly as we can so they are not burdening neighbors or relatives or friends, or anything like that."

Mr. Eggleton says he has been impressed with the openness and willingness of church groups and other voluntary organizations to help the Montagnards, especially at a time when Americans may be nervous about international developments.

"I think people were anticipating that there would be kind of a backlash against foreigners," he emphasized. "And so the people that we work with and the really good people have stepped forward even more than they have before to show how open the United States can be, and that has been incredibly gratifying."

The North Carolina volunteers are working with state and federal agencies which are overseeing the refugee resettlement effort. From now until mid-July, three or four times each week, groups of 50 Montagnards will travel on commercial flights out of Cambodia to the United States. Six of them plan to settle with relatives in Seattle, Washington, and the rest will go to Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and New Bern in North Carolina.