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A kind of homecoming

by Amy Kingsley

By the time the K family arrived in Greensboro in March, all the shops and restaurants in the airport had closed for the night. Their flight from Los Angeles was one of the last scheduled to land at Piedmont Triad International and, according to a computer monitor mounted above the waiting area, it was delayed.

***

Nearly three dozen people waited at the end of the concourse for the family. One of them, a man who wore a vest decorated with insignia from the Vietnam War, held two paper bags stocked with apples and oranges. Dozens of other onlookers ranged in age from children to grandparents, all with faces as dark and angular as hardwood totems – Montagnards, also known as Dega, from Greensboro and High Point.

Seth Horton had arrived with a banner tucked under one arm. The recent college graduate, who wore khakis and tennis shoes, would be the person primarily responsible for ushering the seven members of the K family through their first 90 days in America. One of his first tasks – after the screen switched from “delayed” to “arrived” and passengers started streaming out of the terminal – was to unfurl the banner.

“Welcome to America,” Horton said, echoing the phrase on the sign.

The K family, seven members strong, stalled at the sight of the crowd. Each of them was bundled against the early spring chill and carried a large plastic shopping bag containing chest X-rays, a passport and an I-94, a small card issued by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that identified family members as refugees. The family members, dazed after their trans-Pacific flight, eked out tepid half smiles. They received the fruit and silently followed Kadel and Horton to the lower level baggage claim, where they gathered their luggage and piled into the van that would take them to their new home in High Point.

***

K Mar, the patriarch, was born into a Koho village in Lam Dong province in 1938, a time of relative peace in French Indochina. The villagers, members of an ethnic group descended from Polynesians, tended small fields that provided them with subsistence crops.

Mar’s village was remote and isolated from disruption that started in the 1950s when Ngo Dihn Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) launched a resettlement program aimed at integrating the ethnic minorities in the highlands with the majority Vietnamese in the lowlands. Mar married Set, a woman seven years his junior from a neighboring village, and in 1968 the couple had their first son, My.

By then, a war for independence from France had evolved into the Vietnam War, a conflict between Communists in the north and the American-supported government in the south. The Central Highlands became a key front, and American Special Forces flooded the villages looking for allies.

The Montagnards proved the most reliable American allies in South Vietnam, in part because they saw the struggle as a way to advance their own cause – an independent Montagnard state. In 1964, an independence movement with the acronym FULRO (the initials refer to the French translation of United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races) emerged from an American Special Forces training camp, according to Repression of Montagnards, published by Human Rights Watch.

Mar joined the Americans and commanded his village’s troops. During a gun battle, he was shot in the shoulder; bits of shrapnel remain buried in his bones to this day.

By the time American participation in the war ended in 1975, Mar and Set had two sons. The US soldiers left the Highlands, but promised to support the Montagnards’ independence struggle, which continued unabated until the early 1990s. In 1992, the remaining members of FULRO, which had dwindled to a small force, resettled in North Carolina with the help of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They were lured here by the state’s high concentration of retired Special Forces (around 5,000 Montagnards live in Guilford County).

Repression of the Montagnards by the Communist government escalated. Land was seized from villagers, who had held it for generations without documentation, and consolidated for the cultivation of cash crops. The leaders of unauthorized Protestant congregations were forced into hiding. And former rebels and American allies – like Mar – were sent to reeducation camps.

“It was very hard,” said Mar through a translator. “We had to work very hard.” Here he mimed swinging a hoe. At the reeducation camp, he worked fields all day and subsisted on minimal rations, he said.

In February of 2001, thousands of Montagnards marched to the city of Pleiku, and then next day, thousands more appeared in Ban Me Thout. They demanded land rights, and in some cases, political autonomy. The response from the Vietnamese government was swift and harsh. Thousands of Montagnards fled over the border to Cambodia, and many, again, were resettled in North Carolina.

The K family by then numbered seven, with five sons ranging in age from 7 to 33. None of the family members marched in the protests, although they had heard about them. Instead they kept to themselves in their small mountain village until one day in 2003, when K Mar read in a newspaper that former allies of US forces could apply for resettlement in America.

By then his four older sons had grown, and the family lived a poor life on the edge of the forest, which provided them with a meager living. My and his younger brothers Mac, Dan and Diom cut timber and harvested cashews and bamboo shoots to sell at market. None of the boys had received more than three years of formal schooling.

The family waited three years for approval, and then the gears of refugee resettlement started turning. By then the oldest son My had started his own family, but he had to leave his wife and young children behind when he boarded the plane to America.

Now My, his brothers and his parents were officially recognized under international law as refugees, persons unable to return to their homeland for fear of political or religious persecution. Their status bestowed on them the right to live and work legally in the United States, to subsist alongside Mar’s allies of yore in central North Carolina.

***

Mark Kadel relocated from Idaho to High Point in early 2007 to direct the local office of World Relief, a humanitarian agency affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals. Kadel has worked in refugee resettlement for 15 years, and has encountered refugees removed in camps for so long from the modern world that they didn’t have the muscle memory to operate door handles or the louvers on window blinds.

“Refugee status is based on economic self-sufficiency,” he says. “All employable persons are required to work full-time. That’s the agreement with the US government and World Relief.”

Horton will guide the family for the first 90 days. In 120 days, the K family will be required to begin paying installments on the loan from the US government they used to purchase plane tickets. That gives them four months to assimilate into productive American society.

The morning after their arrival, the Ks meet with Horton and Carolyn Walley at their apartment on the edge of town. It’s an unremarkable unit with a living room unfurnished except for a couch and chair and an adjacent kitchen arranged around a square of linoleum.

World Relief checks up on all its refugees within the first 24 hours. It’s Friday, and Carolyn takes a translator and a few of the adult boys to cash assistance checks at the bank before it closes on Friday.

“We want to work,” says My through a translator.

“That’s good,” Horton says, “but don’t worry about that right now. Rest right now.”

The following Monday, Maluth Peter Gatkouth, a World Relief case worker, drove the four older sons to the Greensboro Social Security office. The office, a low-slung building lodged between extended-stay hotels, is predictably bustling. Gatkouth, who has an appointment, sees another case worker from Lutheran Family Services, another resettlement agency.

Gatkouth himself came to America as a refugee from Sudan. He was one of a group of Lost Boys, young boys orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War, resettled in the Triad. For his first job, he installed hardwood floors, backbreaking work he often performed for 10 to 12 hours a day. Because he spoke English, Gatkouth was recruited by World Relief to assist with the Lost Boys resettlement, and he has worked there ever since.

“It’s very hard for refugees in America,” Gatkouth says. “The resettlement agencies push you very hard. Sometimes they drive you straight from the airport to the Social Security office.”

One by one the Social Security employee calls My, Mac, Dan and Diom behind a partition, where she verifies ages and names and issues them Social Security numbers. The transaction is conducted quickly and in monosyllables because none of the K brothers speak any English. After they’ve obtained their identification cards, the boys can apply for the public benefits to which, as refugees, they are entitled. Those include eight months of Medicaid for the adults and food stamps until they get jobs.

Two days later, in early April, all the members of the K family except 13-year-old Nap meet in an airy conference room at John Wesley College, an evangelical seminary around the corner from the World Relief offices. The walls of the room are covered with cultural tokens: textiles from Latin America, fans from Asia and drums from Africa. The meeting is the first in which Horton lays out the resettlement process for the Ks and another Vietnamese family that arrived with them. The families will attend weekly job readiness classes, Horton says, and adhere to self-sufficiency contracts amended monthly. They will not move, marry, divorce, take a job or accept any cash without letting him know.

“Here,” he says. “Take my card. If you have any problems with police or bus drivers or anyone else, have them call me.”

World Relief will serve as a referral service for five years, a place where the refugees can touch base with questions and job inquiries. But the agency’s intensive tutoring of newcomers ends after only six months. At the end of the meeting, the brothers mark their first self-sufficiency agreements, and also sign for their parents, who are illiterate.

“As your case manager, I will hold your hand as you learn to walk in America,” Horton says. “After a while, I’ll expect you to run by yourself.”

***

Kadel brought his job-training curriculum from Idaho to High Point when he took the position in North Carolina. There will be ten classes, nonsequential, that all work-eligible adults must attend. All six adult members of the K family attend the inaugural session, ferried there by a bus sent by the agency. The weather has warmed in the two weeks since their arrival, and the brothers have traded their sweaters for T-shirts.

The class is held in a narrow room packed with student desks. Nearly two dozen refugees of various nationalities sit shoulder to elbow. Up front, volunteer instructor Jim Watson fiddles with a computer slideshow.

“This is a series of classes to help you find an appropriate job and help you to succeed,” Watson says by way of introduction. “The key is work ethic. You have a work ethic in your country and we have one here in America.”

The purpose of the class is dual: to provide information about getting and keeping a job, and to deliver rudimentary English instruction. It’s been two weeks since the K family arrived, but the timing of their arrival and the academic calendar at Guilford Technical Community College clashed, meaning that the family won’t start English classes for at least another month.

Watson starts with the basics, the very basics, and leads the class in a pronunciation and values exercise. He enumerates the characteristics prized by American employers. Alertness. Ambition. Confidence. Cooperation. Honesty. Courtesy. Humility. Punctuality. Responsibility. Tolerance. Each word is followed by a definition.

Mar and Set hold their No. 2 pencils nervously. My and Dan take to the lessons more quickly, but Mac and Diom remain silent. Watson releases the class early, and in the main office Horton assembles packets of pictures and documents for state identification cards.

“A citizen would go in with their birth certificate,” Kadel says. “For refugees – who don’t have birth certificates – the important documentation includes proof of address, name, age, date of arrival, height, weight and case number.”

Even then, some refugees struggle with the perception at DMV that they are illegal immigrants defrauding their way into the system.

The next day at the Ks’ apartment, Kadel flashes a similar slide show on a blank wall. A rice cooker pumps away on the kitchen counter. Today Kadel is conducting interviews with each of the family members to determine the kind of work they might be qualified for. Mar, the father, is at 69 eligible for Social Security benefits and excused from working.

Set, the mother, is 61, but has the demeanor of a shy schoolgirl. She is so slight physically she could be the shadow of a china doll and her eyes, crosshatched with cataracts, are notched into a face etched with deprivation. Set speaks no English, no Vietnamese and no Rhade, which is the lingua franca of the Montagnard tribes; she only understands her native village dialect. Her sons translate for the Vietnamese translator, who translates back to Kadel.

“I don’t think she’s going to be employable at all,” Kadel says. “She might be able to get a small job, but you boys are going to have to help her.”

The boys are more than willing to do so. My, 39, attended three years of school before dropping out to tend to the family’s crops. He speaks Vietnamese and his village dialect, and can drive a motorcycle. Mac, 36, is a farmer who attended two years of public school. He wants to build furniture. Dan, 26, attended school until the third grade and learned to cut hair just before he left Vietnam. Diom, 23, never attended school, and is as quiet as his mother. After he learns English, he says, he would like to learn how to do auto body repair. The sons, who idle at the house between social service appointments and classes, say they are eager to start work.

“I’m going to make a note of your good motivation,” Kadel says.

Hieu Chi Le, the pastor of High Point’s Baptist Vietnamese Mission, says the local economy’s shift away from manufacturing has hit refugees particularly hard. Fifteen years ago, families like the Ks with little education and no English skills could easily find assembly line work with decent pay. But now, more and more Vietnamese refugees have to enter the service industry, and increasingly that means getting a cosmetology degree and opening a nail salon. That vocational path is harder for the Ks because their lack of formal schooling in Vietnam portends plenty of catching up in America.

“I’m really sorry I can’t get you into English class until next week,” Kadel says. In the meantime, he tells them to practice with each other. “Starting next week, only the four older brothers need to come to job-training class.”

Kadel instructs them to catch the 8:25 a.m. bus outside their apartment. They receive bus passes and cards printed with their destination: Oak Hollow Mall, which is across the street from the World Relief offices.

As he leaves, Kadel points to the massive pile of sweet potatoes behind the sliding glass door, a gift from a former special forces soldier who divvied up the bounty from the bed of his pickup.

***

Before the Ks start their job search, Watson, the job-training instructor, thinks it might be instructive to show them the inner workings of an American workplace. By the fifth week of the class, the erstwhile banker had quit his job at LSB Bank and signed on at World Relief full-time. He’d pulled connections from his former incarnation as a loan officer to schedule tours at two local manufacturers.

After arriving late for the first couple weeks, the brothers had finally mastered the High Point transit system. It’s early May – a month and a half after the family arrived in High Point – the four boys have not yet found jobs, and the English class that was supposed to begin two weeks ago has been delayed once again.

“How do you like America?” Watson asks.

They nod enthusiastically and smile. It seems genuine, their attitude untempered by homesickness or the uncertainty of their futures here.

Watson and Carolyn Walley, the match grant coordinator, split the group into two minivans and start the drive out of town. The first stop, Carolina Safety Sport, is a thriving manufacturer of reflective safety clothes. The building, clean and modestly landscaped, sits at the end of a row of boarded-up furniture warehouses in a neglected Thomasville neighborhood.

The main entrance opens onto a neat linoleum-paved lobby that leads to a row of small administrative offices. The owner, Tammy Joyce, guides the group through an open manufacturing facility. Workers, many of them older white women, channel the products through automated presses and affix the detail work, expertly nudging vests through industrial sewing machines. Bolts of neon fabric, in various stages of production, sit on racks, cover worktables and fill cardboard boxes.

As the refugees amble through, they work. Dan straightens out a box here, My catches a vest before it hits the floor there. An older Vietnamese woman informs Jim she can sew. At the end of the tour, Joyce leads the group into the warehouse. She selects safety vests for each member of the tour, emblazoned on the back are the words “Watch Me for Safety.”

Across town, past Thomasville’s giant chair, the next factory is housed in a portable metal building fronted by a two-story manufactured house. Here, at McIntyre Metals, workers design and assemble wire display racks for retailers. This production facility is dank and loud, populated with sparking machines and the stink of burning metal.

A machine draws thick-gauge wire from an enormous metal spool, cuts it and drops the lengths into a massive metal crimper. Three welders separated by screens and metal blast walls touch blinding flames to iron joints.

An employee leads the group to an enclosed painting facility. The company’s patented painting process involves ionizing the pigment molecules so they adhere to metal. One of the company’s older workers, a soot-slick Southerner, helpfully hangs a dustpan from one of the paint machine’s hooks.

“Jobs at the plant start at seven or eight dollars an hour,” the guide says.

They’re expanding, too. But the plant is far from the Montagnards’ High Point apartment, past the last Hi-Tran stop and well out of reach. Watson loads the group back into two cars for the drive back to High Point.

***

The Sunday before Memorial Day finds K My sequestered in a small upstairs room of the First Baptist Church annex in downtown High Point. He is participating in a combination ESL/Bible study class conducted by a Southern preschool teacher.

Like a lot of Montagnards, the K family converted to Protestantism more than 10 years ago, swayed by missionaries working in their small village. His home country, Catholic by way of French occupation, now boasts a number of Protestant converts and an indigenous brand of Dega Christianity that is married to the independence movement. The Vietnamese government, which authorizes only a handful of official churches, represses religion in the Central highlands, driving pastors to start so-called “house churches.” The government regularly imprisons religious leaders caught leading unauthorized congregations.

My attends the Baptist church, where Pastor Hieu Chi Le leads a mixed Vietnamese/Montagnard congregation. He is the only member of the K family who belongs to Le’s church. His brothers travel with friends to worship at the International Montagnard Bible Church in northeast Greensboro. Churches like this one, and the one in Greensboro, ease the introduction of new refugees into the established Montagnard community.

Today’s lesson includes instruction in the history of Memorial Day, why it is that Americans honor fallen soldiers. This weekend is one the Montagnards also celebrate with their aging American allies. At a farm in Randolph County, the Vietnam War veterans will gather to trade memories and food.

But here in the high room that looks out over a parking lot, the teacher leads the class in a spiritual lesson.

“It is not so important to understand the words and have the intellect in your mind,” the teacher says. “It is important that we understand who wrote the words and that we can trust him forever.”

After the 45-minute lesson, the instructor gathers her students in a prayer circle and sends the class to the dining hall, which has been set with chairs for the morning’s worship. An accordion divider blocks off a darkened cafeteria at the other end of the room. The regular parishioners of the large High Point church meet in a grand worship space off Main Street, but the Vietnamese Mission worships in this basement conference room.

***

In early June, K Mar suffered an aggravation of appendicitis that first afflicted him in Vietnam in 2002. Complaining of pain in his abdomen, the senior family member was rushed to the hospital, where doctors operated and observed him for several days. In the upstairs apartment occupied by the second Vietnamese family, the brothers have gathered to talk with Walley about their father’s condition, and his prognosis for returning home.

On the other end of the phone, Mar worries about what is happening to him. His sons try to reassure him.

My flips open a leather wallet to a picture of his daughter, dressed in pink, standing on a packed dirt floor with a palm leaf in her hand.

By the time the solstice rolled around, a sort of inverse of the usual summer listlessness has transformed the brothers’ schedules. Idleness has been replaced by frenzy as the sons juggle classes and work. My, Mac and Dan have all started second-shift jobs at Faces South Inc., a High Point company that specializes in polished wood veneers.

It’s been slow going on the language front, they say. Now that they work at night and attend English class during the day, they have little time to nurture the pastimes they enjoyed in Vietnam.

Diom, an avid soccer player, wants to find a pick-up game. Dan, the brother with the shaggy hair, wants to find a used guitar. My just wants to move the rest of his family to North Carolina. My met his wife, who was from a neighboring village, during Tet – Vietnamese New Year – eight years ago. They’ve been married five years and have a son and daughter. Gatkouth is helping with the paperwork the family needs to reunite in America, but he says the process can take up to a year.

“Over here, the work is better,” My says. “Over in Vietnam, there is no work.”

Dan likes the freedom in America. “Over here, people treat you with more humanity,” he says. “If you cross the street, cars will stop. Over in Vietnam, if you are crossing the street, you’d better watch out.”

In Vietnam, Montagnards like the K brothers still suffer the racism of the majority Vietnamese.

“People over here, they try to help you,” Diom says. “In Vietnam, if you don’t go to school and you are from the mountains, people don’t listen to you. Whenever I talk to Americans, they try to listen and help me anyway they can.”

Mac says he wants to make money fast to buy a car. Within two more months, he says, he will be speaking English.

Mac, Dan and Diom all want to find women to date, but the Montagnard refugee pool is heavily male, since women from villages are often lashed with domestic responsibilities that keep them from leaving. Most of the women who came from Vietnam are married and followed their husbands to America. The selection of eligible of Vietnamese women is dishearteningly thin.

Dating isn’t the only thing they miss. They miss the isolation of their village in Vietnam, and the proximity of unfettered nature. Dan, the hairdresser and aspiring rock star, waxes nostalgic for a fruit called bo ket he and his brother used to treat their coal-black hair. They split the gourd in half and spread the juice on their scalp, which kept his hair shiny and free of dandruff. Dan says he can’t find bo ket anywhere in America.

***

When the K brothers completed their job-training class in late June, they received certificates in an informal graduation ceremony. They’d practiced converting metric measurements to English ones by mixing the ingredients for trail mix. Mac struggled with a lesson in making change. Watson showed his students the hands of the clock and explained the different ways to tell time. And they had, as a class, filled out practice application forms.

By September, Diom had joined his brothers in employment by taking a job at Artistree, a landscaping company based in Kernersville. K Mar had returned from the hospital, and, though he walked with a stoop, had made a full recovery. Also, the brothers had obtained learners’ permits and were well on their way to becoming licensed American drivers, although they were still a ways from becoming American car owners.

At the end of August, the Ks had moved from the apartment complex where they lived divided into two separate apartments, into a rambling house about a mile away. There, the brothers slept on twin mattress sets in the dining room and in a front bedroom. Nap, going on six months in North Carolina, had yet to enroll in public school. Le visited the family two weeks after school began to work out the documentation he needed to start him at Southwestern Middle School, which he would be attending instead of the Newcomers Center recently opened for students like him.

Like Nap’s admission to school, their resettlement in America had not been without its bumps.

“A lot of families, after 120 days, are well on their way to self-sufficiency,” Kadel says. “Three out of four boys have their learners permit, and they just moved into a new house, which shows initiative. But there have been several hitches.”

The first involved the county health department, which was too backlogged to examine the family members within the 30 days required by law.

“The health department didn’t come around in time,” Kadel says.

It took two months for the family to enroll in English language classes at the community college. Since then, all but one of the brothers, Dan, has stopped attending regularly.

“We don’t like it, but these things happen,” Kadel says. “This family had a lot of things that delayed some of their progress toward self-sufficiency.”

But the family had moved out toward a more rustic part of High Point, a place with more trees but still no bo ket, and appeared to be surviving – catching rides to work with other Montagnards and punching the clock. Even with jobs and permits, their lives in some sense resemble the ones they left behind: living together, surrounded by a community of villagers.

On a Friday evening, another Montagnard named N Ca Cam drops by with Gatorade and cabbage he’s bought for the family from the nearby Food Lion. Friends of the Ks let two yellow dogs nose around the yard as Mar and Set relax on the porch. Set then walks through the house, quiet as a wraith. In the kitchen, on the counter, sit two rice cookers. Both of them are blowing out steam.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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