The state of North Carolina has welcomed many immigrant groups, and most recently, the Montagnard people of Vietnam. For centuries, these Christian farmers have lived in the central highlands of southern Vietnam. Culturally different from the Vietnamese, and strong opponents of communism, they have struggled for their land and the right to practice their religion.
During the Vietnam War, they fought alongside the U.S. Army's Special Forces, a unit headquartered in North Carolina. That connection brought the Montagnard refugees to this part of the country. This summer, more than 900 Montagnards will make the long trip from their refugee camps in Cambodia to North Carolina.
The largest community of Montagnards outside of Vietnam is in North Carolina. The first 200 refugees arrived in 1986, and a larger group joined them in 1992. But nothing can compare to the refugee resettlement currently underway.
It began a few weeks ago at the Raleig-Durham International Airport. A crowd of Montagnards, young and old, was on hand to greet the new arrivals, along with members of Lutheran Family Services, one of the groups coordinating the resettlement of the refugees.
But unlike the earlier resettlements, this one was not starting off as expected. For much of the night, Jeremy Eggleton of Lutheran Family Services, in Raleigh worried if the Montagnards would arrive at all. "I have a list that had them on a Northwest [Airlines] flight arriving at 10 o'clock. We also had a list that had them on U.S. Air flight arriving at 11:24. ... That is our remaining hope for tonight," he said.
And then, minutes later, the first Montagnard was spotted. He was followed by five other men, with tired eyes and - literally - the clothes on their backs. Each carried a blue and white plastic bag, emblazoned with the logo of the International Organization for Migration. Their names and identification numbers were written on the side.
Ypat Buonya was one of the first Montagnard refugees to make it to North Carolina back in 1986. Tonight, he's interpreting for the group, and marking their names off his list one-by-one. It's quite an emotional and overwhelming time for the new arrivals and for those who've lived in the United States for years, like Hlinh Nay.
"I'm thinking that when they were living in the Cambodia, all political reason. But when they here, I'm so exciting because maybe they come here to get a better life, maybe going to school to get a better education. Trying to find the freedom," she said.
"The freedom" means being able to live and pray in peace, which has been a struggle for many Montagnards in Vietnam. Now in the United States, they have the right to live as they please, but they must also be able to pay for that life, and that means finding a job. That may be the toughest part of their resettlement since North Carolina's economy still hasn't bounced back from last year's recession.
For several years, the sound of large meat-cutting machines, slicing the leanest of steaks, has meant money in the bank for many area Montagnards. About 50 of them are employed here at Southern Foods, a meat packaging and distribution company in Greensboro. The first Montagnard to work in this factory was Jic Jic, who came to the United States in 1992 and now makes over $11 per hour as a meat cutter. "A whole lot of my people work here because they work enough hours and they work, ... they need money," he said.
The owner of Southern Foods has been hiring Montagnards for years because, he says, they have a great work ethic, and he'd love to hire more. But a decline in sales means that none of this new group will find work here right now. In its effort to help the refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, Lutheran Family Services has also contacted other local businesses that have hired Montagnards during the last two North Carolina resettlements. And churches and sponsors are being asked to give more, for a longer period of time, to help cover the refugee's expenses.
Many of the Montagnards who arrived a decade or more ago are living the American dream. They have cars, own their homes and some have finished college. For those just getting here, these accomplishments may seem far away. But it's a start, because in North Carolina, they've found a community and a helping hand.