Unsettled Refugees

Southeast Asian communities confront the problems of resettlement.

By Tram Nguyen Sep 15, 2001

As a 10-year-old kid, I hated it the one time my mother took me with her to a welfare office in Los Angeles. It was already bad enough whenever she sent me and my sisters to the grocery store and we had to pay with food stamps.

Those colorfully printed notes crammed deep in my pocket were one of the few and much-resented connections I had between my parents’ life of studying English, doing nails, working in a garage, sending packages to Vietnam–and mine of trying to fit in at school, watching cartoons, reading Grimm’s fairy tales, assimilating to America.

I don’t remember why we were at the welfare office that day, or what my mother had to do with the caseworkers while I waited sullenly. The thing I remember is how, fed up with my attitude, she finally turned to me as we stood in a long line with Latino and black families and said, "This is something the government has to provide to help poor people."

That memory has helped me understand something about my Southeast Asian refugee parents. As much as we’ve disagreed ideologically over certain things (namely the anti-communist dead horse I like to beat), my parents had known long ago what I only realized after a roundabout political education: America owed us some cold hard cash benefits.

Racially Resettled

In the years since catastrophic conflict in Southeast Asia ended, refugees from the region–more than a million people from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam–arrived in successive waves that became the biggest and most intensive refugee resettlement process in U.S. history.

Looked at one way, the story of our resettlement can has been used to prop up mythologies of America’s democratic promise and, by extension, as an exoneration of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. One of the more recent and high-profile examples was conservative lawmakers fawning over the "spectacular American story" of Georgetown law professor Viet Dinh, who went from boat person to George W. Bush’s appointee for assistant attorney general.

But while model refugees do exist, they are hardly the norm. Southeast Asians have maintained the highest welfare participation rates of any ethnicity or racial group, up to 75 percent among Vietnamese and Cambodian residents of the Bronx and Vietnamese in California, based on the 1990 Census (2000 Census breakdowns were not yet available). On average, about 8 percent of Southeast Asians graduate from college, and 45 percent drop out of high school. In the daily life of communities scattered across the map are more realities not measured by Census figures–families sewing piecework at home to supplement inadequate welfare checks; young men profiled in police mugbooks and fed into prisons and INS detention centers; toxic neighborhoods where oil refineries leak their poison regularly into the air and water.

Resettlement sucked, basically.

And it’s within the small and relatively young world of Southeast Asian community organizing where an oppositional stance is being shaped, much of it driven by the younger generation, that redefines the story (and origins) of refugee resettlement through grassroots campaigns for racial justice.

The failures of American involvement in the Vietnam War, over which the nation still has realized neither truth nor reconciliation, also carry over into how refugees fared after being dropped into the context of American racism.

An Every Day Violence

In the 1980s, Philadelphia was designated as one of many resettlement areas across the country where local agencies worked with the federal government to place refugees. Almost overnight, hundreds of Vietnamese and Cambodians moved into the inner-city neighborhood of West Philly. In what emerged as a pattern in other cities as well, agencies that got paid per capita for resettling refugees set up arrangements with slumlords to house as many families as quickly as possible.

"You had African Americans struggling to make landlords accountable, and in come all these people whose rent was paid for," remembers Ellen Somekawa of Asian Americans United, which began organizing Southeast Asians in 1985. "There was a lot of tension, a lot of racial violence against the refugees."

Debbie Wei, a young housing organizer at the time, began knocking on doors in West Philly to find out what could be done to help the refugees. She came across a house, with no heat and no glass in its windows, where 23 Vietnamese people were walking around in flip flops during a Philly winter. Conditions were about the same up and down the block, which had all been resettled by the same agency.

It’s within this context of extreme neglect and urban poverty that racial violence flared between Southeast Asians and the neighborhood’s predominantly black residents, says Wei, who worked with African American housing organizers in the early ‘80s to stabilize the housing crisis and later went on to help found AAU.

"Refugee resettlement always took place in border neighborhoods, where it was the defining line between black and white," she says. "Refugees were used to demarcate which areas were blighted and which were not."

Racial clashes followed Vietnamese refugees as more of them migrated into Southwest, a declining, working-class white neighborhood caught between the African American inner-city and white flight to middle-class suburbs. "In the racist discourse and actions of whites in Southwest, Asians began to supplant African Americans as the ‘other,’" writes Scott Kurashige in an Amerasia Journal article about anti-Asian violence in Philadelphia. Harassment and violence were a daily part of refugees’ lives in Southwest from the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s , according to Kurashige.

Years later and on another coast, the Laotian community of Richmond, California, has been experiencing a different sort of daily assault.

Almost 10,000 Lao, Khmu, and Mien people live in west Contra Costa County, an area where modest, one-story homes coexist alongside of more than 300 chemical plants, waste storage units, oil refineries, and other toxic industries.

When an explosion at the Chevron oil refinery spewed toxic smoke in March of 1999, many residents couldn’t understand the county’s alert system, which consisted of automated phone messages warning them to "shelter in place." Older residents and children especially suffered rashes, nausea, and respiratory problems from exposure to sulfur dioxide and other toxins.

"People were really pissed off and physically affected, and angry enough to want to do something," says Pamela Chiang, an organizer at the time with the Laotian Organizing Project, which had been working in the community for five years on a leadership project with teenage girls.

Their six-month long campaign, featuring eloquent testimony from people who had survived falling bombs in their home country only to face another sort of siege in America, won the passage of a multi-language phone alert system from the county almost two years ago. Though the victory marked a significant experience for many community members, the county has yet to implement the new alert system.

Meanwhile, toxic spills continue regularly. In fact, a General Chemical accident happens the day I try to interview LOP’s three full-time staff at their downtown Richmond headquarters, a small brown house with a dirt yard. Shrill sirens wail up and down the street, and Grace Kong, LOP’s director, interrupts her recount of last year’s school counseling campaign for an emergency huddle with the staff.

"Level 3" accidents calling for all in the vicinity to stay indoors, shut windows, and close off vents occur about every two months, youth organizer Bouapha Tommaly tells me. She’s lived all her life in Richmond. "I’m a child of toxic exposure," she jokes, flinging an arm dramatically over her face.

Outside in the yard, an elderly Laotian woman hoes the dirt resolutely, shrugging off Torm Nompraseurt’s encouragement to come inside.

Nompraseurt has been organizing adults in LOP for five years. Before that, he ran a translation business and had been a longtime community point person through his work as an interpreter and involvement with the local ethnic associations.

"I see a lot of things that are not fair. And some people say, the life is not fair. Okay, but what about the rights of people? If they get sick, they should have health care. If they work, they should have enough to raise their family," says Nompraseurt, explaining how he interacts with a community characterized by complex, war-haunted dynamics.

Still occasionally exhorted by some community members to attend meetings for a sort of underground resistance to the Pathet Lao government, Nompraseurt, whose own nightmares of the war only ended in 1995, says, "I always look at it as, this is where we live. This is today. We have to look at the issues here. And people still have low-paying jobs, no health plan, our kids don’t have books in school, some fall into gangs."

This Is Where We Learned To Speak English

Young people, having grown up during and after the resettlement period, are in a pivotal position for Southeast Asian communities. They’ve been particularly vulnerable to bad schools and police harassment, but what role can they play in moving the community toward resistance?

CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities found the answer to that question when they came to the heavily Vietnamese and Cambodian communities of the Northwest Bronx in 1994 to run workshops in response to local police brutality problems; they ended up staying and building a vibrant youth organizing program that has tackled the community’s deepest problems.

Southeast Asians in the Bronx for the most part had arrived after 1980, part of the second and third waves of refugees, including many former political prisoners and Amerasian children of GIs who came through special resettlement programs. Combinations of TANF, SSI, food stamps, and low-wage work in New Jersey factories or garment piecework at home form the basis of family subsistence.

"The community was overwhelmingly youth–that has largely to do with the fact that many in their 30s or 20s had lost their lives in the civil war. And older people in their 50s were re-creating families. There was this huge generation gap," says Eric Tang, the director of CAAAV’s Youth Leadership Project.

It made sense, then, for organizers to recruit Cambodian and Vietnamese high schoolers into a summer training program, where young people who were already living daily experiences of racism and poverty learned the tools and the language of social change.

"It seems like every which way you turn there’s garbage," says Thoul Tong, a CAAAV organizer who has lived in the Bronx since age 9. "But I don’t want to move away from where I started. I want to help us get people to understand they do have the power to take leadership over what’s happening in their community."

Youth in the program conducted a survey and report last summer on the effects of welfare reform, as well as filming "Eating Welfare," a documentary about the lives of their families and community members under New York’s draconian workfare program.

In the video, a Cambodian teenager narrates a tour of "193rdStreet," the notorious housing project in the Bronx where most refugees are placed. Residents of the building live in cramped, unheated apartments among rats and roaches. "This is where they dumped the Asians. This is where we learned to speak English," says CAAAV organizer Chhaya Chhoum, as the camera scans the dark narrow halls, brick walls, and trash-lined courtyard of the building.

CAAAV’s video is one of several creative projects that youth programs have undertaken to encourage young Southeast Asians to speak in their own voices and document their realities.

In Long Beach, California, Cambodian girls in the HOPE for Girls project of Asians and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH) held several community readings of their poetry and stories, which were published in a 1999 chapbook called The Way In. The girls at APIRH’s Oakland headquarters are working on a collection of writings about the impact of issues such as education, environmental racism, and welfare on their lives. The writing project is called Bloodlines.

The question they started out with: why are our families poor?

Just Punishing the Poor

Welfare reform came to Southeast Asian communities, as it did to the rest of the nation, in the summer of 1996. Those still reeling from resettlement, surviving on welfare, were about to get shaken up again.

In the Bronx, hundreds of families got their cash benefits cut because they went afoul of the confusing and untranslated rules. Women who had cared for their children at home and supplemented meager incomes by making "bow" or hair accessories under the table now were forced to shoulder a broom at the local parks and public facilities in New York’s version of workfare, the Work Experience Program (WEP). All told, some 500,000 people have disappeared from the city’s welfare rolls.

"When welfare reform hit, man, everybody was ready to move," recalls Eric Tang. "It wasn’t so much our efforts, as how bad it was in the community. The youth in this community really have political leadership, and it has to do with the way welfare reform impacted this community. No one was untouched by it."

Seventeen-year-old Anh Trieu, who doesn’t want me to interview her at first, warms to the subject when we talk about welfare reform. Her mother reports to WEP every day now instead of sewing at home, and her father works nights at a plastics factory in New Jersey.

"We want to show that the government is not helping the poor at all. It’s just punishing the poor," she says earnestly about her work at YLP. "My dad helped (the U.S.) in the war. I think we come here, the government should help us instead of punishing us more."

APIRH’s work is another place where the experiences of Southeast Asian women highlight the racial, gender, and anti-immigrant dimensions of welfare reform. They are connecting public perceptions of teen pregnancy, which is especially high among the Cambodian community of Long Beach, with the way the bodies and the work of women of color have been controlled and devalued through welfare reform.

"There’s this obsession with talking about teen pregnancy as the cause of poverty," says Neelam Pathikonda, who organizes the HOPE for Girls project. "This fear of the fertility of women of color is the thing that drives policy, which for us is the same as population control."

Redemption Song

In the weekly writing sessions of Bloodlines, the HOPE girls research their family histories, talking to their parents about what life was like in Cambodia and Vietnam, what happened to them during the war, and what they do in America to get by.

They are contextualizing these individual experiences, organizers say, putting together the sum of the whole to understand the broader story that has shaped their communities.

"My mother thinks life is so great in America, and that I have it so easy. I don’t have to deal with ‘the war’ that caused her and my father to leave her country. But every day as soon as I get up I have to deal with this society and how it views me as nothing. I believe that I have to battle," writes 16-year-old Meuy Saephanh.

If I had written a Bloodlines piece at their age, it might have begun with our family’s escape from Vietnam. Of the boat journey, I remember the darkness and the seasickness, my mother chanting Buddhist prayers as waves washed over us. Of the camp, the day we left to be relocated to America is my sharpest memory, because my father, who couldn’t come right away since he had tested positive for tuberculosis, ran alongside the bus waving to us.

The details are different, but the themes of tragedy and triumph over hardship resonate in most refugees’ stories. Should we be thankful that we’re no longer living in a war zone, as political prisoners, or in Third World poverty? I am, yes. But our current reality is not what I suspect many of us had in mind either.

I also think the story of resettlement as redemption does not begin or end with refugees being allowed to make it or break it as new Americans. Instead, it can be found in the context of our experiences and the collective will to shape their outcomes.

That helped me understand why my mother and I had to go to the welfare office, and why our families are poor.