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Southeast Asians’ First Stopover on Freedom Road

Times Staff Writer

“All right, class, all together now,” a bouncy young American teacher urged. “ ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer; ray, a drop of golden sun; me, a name I call myself; fa, a long, long way to run. . . . ‘ “

“The Sound of Music” welled from a English-language classroom at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center overlooking the South China Sea on the Bataan Peninsula.

The students, young Vietnamese, had come a long, long way to get here. Now they were just months away from resettlement in the United States. The camp, outside the town of Morong, was the last they would see of Asia and provided their first taste of life in America.

Cultural Orientation

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Here they are learning English and job skills, and are given what camp administrators call cultural orientation.

“For instance,” Esther Bowman said, “we teach them how to enter someone else’s house. You knock, you don’t just walk in. You identify yourself. . . . You leave your shoes on.”

Bowman works for World Relief Corporation, one of the voluntary agencies that run the classes. The focus is on raising awareness of life in America, and, to a degree, lowering expectations.

The center, encompassing nearly 900 acres, is administered by the Philippine government. The facilities were built and are maintained by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and the volunteer agencies are funded by the U.S. State Department.

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Established in June, 1980, the center has processed nearly 160,000 Indochinese refugees. The current population includes 8,667 Vietnamese, 5,401 Cambodians and 1,290 Laotians.

They come here from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and elsewhere around the rim of their Communist-ruled homelands, from first-asylum camps where many stayed for three to five years in difficult conditions after perilous flight by boat or on foot. Some, though, come almost directly from Vietnam under the Orderly Departure Program of normal emigration.

The average stay here is six to eight months, depending in part on proficiency in English. When sponsorships and other requirements are in order, the refugees are taken by bus to Manila, where they board a plane for a new life across the Pacific.

By the time they arrive in Bataan, their thoughts are centered on the United States.

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How to Knot a Necktie

In a cultural orientation class, which had just completed a session on how to knot a necktie, the questions put to a visiting American reflected their anxieties:

“Can you get a job in South Carolina?”

“Is it cold in Minnesota?”

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“If I get a job, can I still get Medicaid?”

The last question reflects a problem for the teachers here. David Perrin and Huynh Hong Bich, who work for the International Catholic Migration Commission, say their aim is to teach the refugees to be independent, to get a job.

“But they get letters from relatives in the States saying not to worry, that the welfare system is great,” Jon Darrah, head of the ICMC program at the center, said.

‘Drastic Difference’

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The refugees “don’t realize what a drastic difference it’s going to be,” Perrin said, and added: “They are going to what for them will be a cold, impersonal, efficient society. We try to teach them coping skills for a country that has rules and regulations, where things aren’t necessarily done on family connections.”

There is a “rush for knowledge” among the refugees in their last few weeks here, he said.

The question is not “what is America like?” the ICMC workers said, pointing out that a description of American skyscrapers and freeways would probably be beyond the comprehension of many refugees anyway.

It is, “What is going to happen to me there? Will I be able to get a job? Will I need a uniform? How much will it cost? Will I be able to go to school, and how much will that cost? Will I be able to have a house of my own?”

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Some refugees have very high expectations of life in a wealthy country. Others have become more practical after their stay here. Tran Dinh Giap, an elected leader of the Vietnamese refugees, says: “I can work at any job. I’ll take any job.”

Nguyen Xuan, 17, and Nguyen Thanh Ngoc, 21, both Vietnamese “boat people,” will be going to California.

Xuan, who will live in San Jose, wants to be an electrician. Ngoc wants to continue his education in Los Angeles. “Can I afford it?” he asked.

Early Lesson in Democracy

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The center is divided into 10 neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is generally restricted to one of the ethnic groups, and each has an elected council, an early lesson in democratic politics.

The differences are obvious. In a Cambodian neighborhood, where most of the refugees are rural people, the women wear sarongs and there is a model of Angkor Wat, the ancient temple in northwest Cambodia.

In Vietnamese neighborhoods, where the people tend to come from urban backgrounds, the dress is more Western, though the black pajamas of the countryside are also in evidence.

Enterprising Vietnamese have set up small cafes in their neighborhoods, whose symbols are small, weathered refugee boats that landed on the shores of Bataan.

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The Vietnamese, many from urban families that had the money to pay to escape, are the most self-assured--"almost cocky,” a volunteer worker said.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner provides food, kerosene and firewood, and two stores run by Philippine vendors from Morong offer supplemental food, clothing and notions. The currency of the camp is the U.S. dollar, mailed from relatives in the States.

No Liquor Allowed

The refugees do their own cooking, in their dormitories, and some cultivate small spice gardens to flavor their distinctive cuisine. Liquor is not allowed. Anyone found with it does some time in the “monkey house.”

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In addition to English and vocational and cultural orientation classes, plus a smattering of U.S. history, the refugees are required to perform maintenance work around the camp. The emphasis is on developing attitudes and practices that will be important in their new homes--punctuality, enthusiasm, self-reliance.

Vocational training includes classes in auto mechanics, plumbing, construction, nursing, hotel work and a variety of clerical jobs. The orientation instruction covers practical matters of everyday life--how to make an appointment with a doctor, establish a bank account, use public transportation. All instruction is in English.

Those who cannot keep up the pace are recycled in their training programs, meaning more time here--not necessarily a strong deterrent. The pleasant surroundings of the Bataan center are a big step up from first-asylum camps, and far from the anxieties of life in America.

“There have been cases of refugees going to the States and asking to return to Bataan,” a U.N. official in Bangkok said.

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The “model house” operated by the World Relief Corporation brings the refugees face to face with American life. A tour is part of the orientation. The rooms have Western-style furniture, the bathroom Western facilities and the kitchen modern appliances.

‘Puzzled, to Say the Least’

“The refugees, particularly those from the countryside, are puzzled to say the least,” Bowman, the World Relief representative, said.

Running water in a kitchen sink, for instance, can be a wonder. And the need for hot water is often a mystery for a rural woman who is used to water from a stream for washing and bathing.

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Kitchen appliances--blenders, mixers, toasters and electric can openers--evoke even more marvel. The washer and dryer get a lot of attention, Bowman said, particularly the speed of the latter.

The appliances are accepted as tools of Western life, but the teachers emphasize that they will not be found in every American home, and probably not in the first homes of the refugees.

The tableware in the dining room provides a lesson that all the refugees, with the exception of many Vietnamese, will probably have to learn.

“For Khmer (Cambodian) peasants used to eating with their fingers, using a knife and fork can be a challenge,” Bowman said.

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The model home also provides instruction in the outdoor etiquette of suburban living: Washing should be hung in the backyard, lawns must be mowed. And it reveals a different custom within the house: two bedrooms, one for the parents and one for the children, a marked change for people used to living in a communal room.

Many refugees watch their first television on the living room set in the model home. A group of Cambodian children sat cross-legged on the floor watching an old movie, entranced.

But they still had a lesson to learn. Outside the front door, in a pile, lay their shoes and sandals.


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