50,000 a Year : Indochinese Find Haven, Pain in U.S.

Times Staff Writers

A decade later, and the exodus has not ended. Almost every day, in the rear seats of commercial jetliners, behind the usual assortment of tourists, business travelers and other transpacific passengers, hundreds of Indochinese are borne into this country as refugees.

Fifty thousand of them--refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia--still come to the United States each year. They arrive, almost unnoticed, at standard airport passenger terminals in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle. Papers are processed, belongings searched and then each is given a new winter jacket and sent off into the land, to begin an awkward process of cultural grafting that will take even the best of them years to complete.

Some appear at least marginally prepared for the task. Others are woefully unfit, waif-like peasants baffled by the Huggies disposable diapers distributed to child-toting refugees at the airport.

Ordeal of Assimilation


The wisest arrive with eyes wide open, for the experience of the 735,000 Indochinese refugees who have preceded them demonstrates that assimilation into America will be an ordeal exceeded in difficulty only by their actual escape from war and its retributions.

In this time of American reflection on the Vietnam experience, much attention has been paid to successes among the refugees, the valedictorians and millionaires, the thoroughly capitalistic entrepreneurs who have transformed lackluster neighborhoods into thriving “Little Saigons.”

President Reagan, in his State of the Union address this year, praised a Vietnamese refugee who has done well at West Point; a newcomer from Cambodia won an Academy Award.

While these examples are remarkable, they do not, according to social workers, researchers and refugees themselves, represent the norm. Rather, the 10-year anniversary of Saigon’s fall finds a great number of refugees still struggling mightily to find their economic and social footing in America.


“We do want people to know there are success stories,” said Vu Duc Vuong, executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement in San Francisco, “but at the same time, they obscure the reality. The reality is that for any one refugee who has success, there are three others who do not yet have it--and still others who are coming.”

A U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement survey report released in January said half the refugees polled are living below the poverty level. Unemployment rates run well above the national average, and studies have shown that the bulk of those who do have jobs are underemployed. In California, home to an estimated 291,000 of the refugees, roughly 60% receive welfare benefits.

There are other hardships that cannot be measured by such barometers as income levels or employment statistics. The refugees have been through a lot, and it has taken a toll.

For example, when a Cambodian in Fresno wrote his life story for a class project, the three-page summary included descriptions of two wars, life in a slave labor camp, drinking foul water to survive, the starvation deaths of his father and two younger sisters and, finally, a four-day run through a mine-laden jungle to Thailand:

‘Most People Died’

“Some people were killed on the way, and some were hurt. Some stepped on a mine, and it blew their bodies apart. Some got shot. The bullets and bombs were all over in the air like a group of birds. Most people died on the way.”

The author was 13 years old.

Mental health is emerging as a major concern. Family relations strain under demands of the new culture. Self-pride drops in proportion to living standards.


Fear, guilt, nostalgia and nightmares tumble together when thoughts turn, as they often do, to people and places and horrors left behind. Depression, frustration, confusion all weigh heavily on the refugees, although the darkness is not always apparent to the outside world.

“We are always smiling,” said Mai Cong, a refugee who works as a mental health specialist in Orange County, “although maybe it is a storm inside.”

Studies have shown that, as a group, the Indochinese refugees suffer from abnormal amounts of depression.

“It is hard for us to fathom the psychological adjustment that a refugee must make,” Judy Chu, a psychologist with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, testified before the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations last month.

“It is not surprising,” she testified, “that research has found refugees to have a high and continuing level of depression, especially those who have suffered a setback in their socioeconomic level. Doctors must now work as janitors or factory workers. Refugees may realize that they are being exploited at a laborer’s job, but they must repress such depressing thoughts.”

Elders have it especially tough. Traditionally family leaders, they now perceive themselves as having little applicable wisdom to offer.

‘I Am an Old Rag’

“They have less confidence in themselves,” said Mai Cong. “They will say, ‘What am I? I am an old rag. I have nothing. Who will listen to me in a society where the system is so different?’ ”


A study in Santa Clara County demonstrated that the severity of mental health problems differs according to nationality. For instance, while 6% of the Vietnamese surveyed were found to be in “high need” of mental health services, 17.5% of the Cambodians fell into the category. (The norm for the general U.S. population was 3%.)

“Southeast Asian refugee groups scored very, very high on scales of depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Ken Meinhardt, chief of the county’s Mental Health Department. “Cambodians especially turned out to be just a real savagely treated group. They reacted much like you would expect from Nazi war camp refugees.”

Santa Clara County’s findings underscore a major dilemma confronting any attempt at assessing how Indochinese refugees have fared in this country: The refugees cannot be discussed rationally as a single entity. They have come from different countries and drastically different backgrounds for different reasons at different times. “Their one common link,” said one expert, “is that they are all successful escapees.”

Not Always Compatible

Vietnamese account for 471,000 of this country’s refugee population. There are 147,500 Laotians and 116,500 Cambodians. Within each of these are smaller factions, and they don’t always get along. For example, Vietnamese do not necessarily mix well with ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, and there are both cultural and political dissimilarities between lowland Laotians and highland Laotians, especially the Hmong tribesmen.

“Even the ethnic Chinese (from Vietnam) are different among themselves,” said Frank Griswold, a Catholic Social Services official in Sacramento. “Those from the north are farmers and fishermen. Those from the south are more urbane, Westernized. You have three countries, six to eight different ethnic groups, as well as a wide variety of classes of people.”

Many of the first 135,000 refugees who came in 1975, immediately after Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the Communists, had American connections or at least a passing familiarity with Western culture, and they are doing better than the later arrivals.

Influx of 450,000

The biggest crush occurred in 1979 through 1982 with the influx of more than 450,000 refugees. In this group was a mixture of so-called boat people--many of them ethnic Chinese facing discrimination in the wake of hostilities between Vietnam and China--and Laotians and Cambodians. Many were illiterate and unskilled--poorly equipped to become modern-day Horatio Algers.

Those still arriving range from savvy Vietnamese able to grease palms in Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodians whose bare feet have carried them away from a holocaust. Citified or not, these newcomers are generally more scarred. Some have suffered in Communist “re-education camps” or on forced-labor farms. Many have languished for years under prison-like conditions in refugee camps in Thailand and other Asian countries.

Rick Ruvolo, who works with refugees in San Francisco, described the joy that spread across the face of an elderly Laotian peasant woman last month when she arrived at San Francisco International Airport. What dazzled her, he said, was the carpet. He watched as she caressed the rug and removed her shoes, choosing to walk barefoot.

‘Little Does She Know’

“She was real excited about that,” he said, “but I couldn’t help but wonder when she would be that comfortable again. She looked as if she might have thought it was all over now, that she had it made. I thought, ‘Little does she know this is only the beginning, and it is not going to be easy.’ ”

Despite U.S. efforts to disperse refugees throughout the country, a disproportionate number end up in California. Nearly 90,000 of the state’s 291,000 Indochinese refugees originally were settled in other states. Texas is a distant second in refugee population with 51,000. It is widely estimated that half of all refugees in this country eventually will settle in California.

Evidence of the refugee migration can be found in nearly every corner of the state. In San Francisco, refugee children jump rope on sidewalks in the unsavory Tenderloin district, playing alongside drunkards, prostitutes and tramps.

Hmong tribal refugees have flocked to the San Joaquin Valley. Fleets of rusty Vietnamese fishing boats work out of harbors up and down the California coast, at times angering other commercial fishing crews with their all-too-successful gill net tactics.

130,000 in L.A. County

In Los Angeles County, which with 130,000 refugees has more than any other county, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam have established a strong foothold as shopkeepers and restaurant people in Chinatown, coexisting in less-than-perfect harmony with earlier Chinese immigrants.

Cambodians have clustered in Long Beach. The Bolsa District of Orange County, a vigorous quarter of refugee-owned retail shops and restaurants, provides the Vietnamese with their most visible presence in the nation.

The refugees come to California for many reasons--climate, family ties, economic opportunity. A major motivation, many experts said, is California’s generosity as a provider of both welfare benefits and training programs. California taxpayers will pay an estimated $150 million in benefits and programs for refugees in the next fiscal year. This is in addition to $400 million in federal money.

“You’ve got a population that wants education more than anything else,” said Phillip N. Hawkes, director of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. “You’ve got a welfare system that’s beatable. If you are in California and you’re on welfare, the rules say you must accept any suitable offer of employment. For a family of five, the head of the family would have to be offered a job paying over $1,000 a month for it to be considered a suitable offer because . . . you can’t make him take a job that pays less.”

Climate Factor Debated

Hawkes does not believe that climate is as great a factor for secondary migration as some contend. He said national statistics also show high rates of secondary migration by refugees into Minnesota, Wisconsin and other cold-weather states with liberal welfare programs. “They’re certainly not going to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the climate,” he said.

Refugees with families often don’t want to receive welfare, social workers said, but they cannot figure a way to make more money working, and so they swallow their pride and accept the benefits. To do otherwise would be to abandon the best interests of their family, especially the children.

Others look on the period when they are covered by refugee assistance as a time to take classes and gird themselves for the struggle ahead.

Said one refugee worker: “It takes courage to confront this society, and their courage has kind of been spent getting here. They are not really ready to go out man the barricades--to go about getting a job and confronting language and cultural problems if they don’t have to.”

California officials argue that secondary migration has made the state carry an unfair portion of the refugee load. Refugees are the responsibility of the federal government for three years. After that, the states take over.

Disproportionate Burden

“We think we should pay our share as one state in the Union, but the burden is disproportionate right now,” said Jo Frederick, staff director of the California legislature’s Joint Committee on Refugee Resettlement. “We are trying to do the best we can to accept the challenge to resettle the refugees. We are saying that to the extent the costs can be quantified, they should be coming out of 50 pockets, not one.”

Both in California and nationally, the resettlement effort is in transition, evolving from a humanitarian rescue operation into more of a work incentive program. Policy-makers view quick employment as a panacea for both financial and mental struggles.

“We have done our business,” said Lavinia Limon, director of the Los Angeles office of the International Rescue Committee. “We have rescued these people. They are fine in terms of day-to-day living. The Welfare Department takes care of that for them. Now, we have to think in terms of them joining the mainstream and becoming self-sufficient and enjoying all the benefits of doing that.”

Welfare Formula Altered

In June, a welfare demonstration project will allow the heads of newly arrived refugee families in California to continue to receive benefits even if they work more than 100 hours a month. Welfare payments will be reduced according to how much money is earned on the job, so that the family’s net income will remain the same.

Previously, family heads who wanted to work full-time found to their frustration that taking on a menial job would lower their income from what could be made on welfare, providing a major disincentive for refugees to join the labor force.

Language classes have been altered to stress “occupational English.” Ruvolo described how the courses changed: “It was no more, ‘Hello, how are you?’ It was, ‘This is a mop. This is a W-2 Form. This is a time sheet.’ ”

In Asian camps where refugees wait to resettle in the United States, they are being taught menial job skills, a smattering of English and, as one put it, “how to find a job.” The lesson is underscored when they arrive in this country.

‘Try to Find Work’

“In America,” a social worker at the Southeast Asian refugee resettlement center in San Francisco told a family of eight that had arrived from Asia only the day before, “it is very important to try to find work as soon as you can.”

The heads of the four younger men of the family, all brothers, bobbed up and down.

“Welfare,” the worker went on, “is not very much money and not very good.”

Heads bobbed again.

“The most important thing is to get that first job. After you get that first job, you can get other jobs, but that first job is always the hardest.”

When a reporter asked the brothers what their dreams were, they replied, in almost perfect unison, “I hope to get a job.”

There are refugees who have demonstrated a strong work ethic and overcome tremendous obstacles to take on the trappings of American success. The same federal survey that found half the refugees living beneath the poverty level--$800 a month for a family of four--also reported that 20% of those surveyed had incomes at least twice the poverty level.

Working in Electronics

Su Van Do and his wife are both employed as skilled electronics workers. They own a home in Costa Mesa. Their children excel in school.

Do, 51, a former city official who fled Vietnam in 1975, can still remember his first days here, when he earned $2.30 an hour for a nursery supply firm and on his first Saturday on the job had to commute three hours on the Newport Freeway. Walking. No buses were running, and it was the only route Do could walk with confidence of not becoming lost.

Do and his wife, who had taken on work in a laundry, slowly learned how to survive in America. They enrolled in electronics classes and eventually moved up to better jobs. They bought their home in 1978 and became U.S. citizens last year.

The family’s struggle to build a new life in a strange land has succeeded beyond Do’s initial expectations, but it has not restored all that was lost in the flight from Vietnam.

“I want my children not to have any difficulty or barrier with the language,” said Do, who himself admits to having trouble keeping up with his co-workers’ conversations in English. “I want my children to have the same opportunities as other Americans when they grow up, so they can compete for jobs.

The Price of Success

Like many elderly refugees, Do’s 80-year-old mother, Phao Thi Do, senses a distance developing between her and her grandchildren. She accepts this as a price of their finding success in a new land.

“Sometimes, I talk to them in Vietnamese, and they don’t understand,” she said, as Do translated. “They talk to me in English, and I don’t understand. Sometimes we have to use body language . . . . The gap between myself and my grandchildren’s generation is very big. My grandchildren like hamburgers and American food. When I prepare Vietnamese food, they don’t like it.”

Such cultural gaps are of increasing concern to the refugees. Parents want their children to succeed as Americans and still abide by old-country values and traditions; it is a source of friction within families.

In a full circle of assimilation, some older refugees--many of whom still harbor dreams of a triumphal return to the homeland--have begun organizing weekend language classes to teach their children Vietnamese.

Thousands Each Month

But just as refugee programs begin to develop ways to get their clientele working and even start businesses, and as refugee parents ponder what do about their children’s increasingly American behavior, thousands more newcomers arrive each month to begin the assimilation process at Day One.

The federal government sets a ceiling on Indochinese refugees, and the number has leveled off at about 50,000 a year; at the height of the exodus in 1981, three times as many were allowed in.

About 25,000 people still escape Vietnam in flimsy vessels each year. Many come to rejoin families already here or because they do not want to live under the current regime. Others flee new conflicts in other countries.

Thousands are flown from Vietnam with permission of both governments, benefactors of an Orderly Departure Program intended to provide a safer sorting out of allies and enemies than the dangerous escapes by sea.

“We have lists of upward of 1.2 million persons ready and eager to come out,” said a State Department spokesman. Not all will be allowed to, of course. Estimates of how many more Indochinese refugees to expect range as high as 300,000.

3 Brothers, 2 Sisters

Khang Vinh Vuong, a 33-year-old physics tutor from a small port city in Vietnam, arrived with his three brothers and two sisters at Los Angeles International Airport two weeks ago as part of a flight carrying 150 refugees.

It was the second such flight of the day met by the staff of the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration, an international organization that in this country receives about 75 commercial flights carrying Indochinese refugees each month. The committee’s workers process the newcomers, distribute jackets to each and make sure all are either picked up at the airport or make flight connections for other U.S. cities.

Little attention is now paid to the once-high-profile Indochinese refugee operation, some say by design. “Nobody really knows about it,” said one migration committee worker. “I think people don’t really want to know.”

Vuong and his brothers bought new $20 business suits for the journey to America, and like high school sophomores in their first prom tuxedo, they seemed unfamiliar with the fit, forever straightening ties and checking cuffs.

A Few Job Skills

They also had brought a little English, a product of Voice of America broadcasts, and a few rudimentary job skills picked up in a camp in Manila where they had waited months for admission to America. “I study to be a hotel room boy,” said one of Vuong’s brothers. In Vietnam, he had been a mathematics tutor.

Most important, perhaps, they had brought a realistic outlook of their immediate future in this country, also gleaned from the broadcasts.

“I think we will have a hard life here,” Vuong said. “We listen to the news. We learned we have to compete, and it’s very difficult to find a job. But we will try.”

It took about two hours to process the refugees. Finally, they pushed through a door into the main terminal. For some, like the Vuongs, Los Angeles was a final destination. Relatives rushed forward and ended a decade’s separation in tearful embrace.

Times staff writer Bob Secter and researcher Patricia L. Brown also contributed to this story.