Indochinese Refugee Children Beat Poverty, Background to Succeed

United Press International

When Tin Lap Cao came from Southeast Asia six years ago, unable to speak English and consigned by poverty to live in a drug-infested, violent slum, he said, “I felt very dumb.”

This month, because of his straight-A record, he was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Galileo High School, and in the fall he will be one of the select few to enter the engineering school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tin, 19, said he was good at math when he started school in San Francisco in 1979, but he spoke no English. “I felt very dumb,” he said, “but that’s what pushed me, because I knew I couldn’t go on being dumb.”

Tin and an estimated 4,000 refugee children from Southeast Asia live with families or friends in the Tenderloin, where prostitution, drug dealing and alcoholism are as much a part of daily life as violence, robbery and overcrowded and dirty tenements.


Memories of Farewell

Van Vo, 11, who left Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1981 with his aunt and uncle on a small boat carrying 100 people, carries memories of his mother’s tearful farewell. She had packed his belongings, prepared food for him and told him to find his American father. That search failed; the boy still lives with his relatives.

“He’s one of my top students,” teacher Kathryn Wethington said. “He writes beautifully. In math, he picks up in three minutes what it takes the rest of the class to learn in 45 minutes.”

Van’s uncle, once a policeman in Vietnam and today a hotel janitor, urges all six children in his household to strive for A’s. “I hope the children will be doctors and engineers and teachers,” he said. “I hope they will be successful.”


Helen Hatcher, principal of a school where many of the refugees go, said of the students: “Considering the obstacles and the background of turmoil, motivation is high. Their homework is always done, they treat books better than other students and they get upset at class time that is wasted because of discipline problems.”

Pictures of Exploding Bombs

Darleen Lau, principal of another school that refugees attend, said: “These are children who were living in war-torn countries. Some have seen their fathers beheaded. Therapists working with these kids get back pictures of bombs exploding all the time.”

School officials say many of the refugee pupils have qualified for gifted-children programs and school honor rolls, despite the odds against them.


Tin Cao’s calculus teacher, Patricia Holleran, said she was unaware of his background. “Then we went to the awards banquet for an engineering scholarship he received. I dropped him off by his house, and I watched him walk across the street. Here were all these crazy people, prostitutes--and this very bright young man.

“I thought, we don’t know. We wander around this city, and we don’t know the richness here. We forget what’s behind those walls.”

“My dad forsook everything for me,” Tin said. “He started a business when he was young, and he lost everything in the revolution. I guess the only hope he has is me. I don’t want to let him down.”