Montagnard teens tell stories in Smithsonian-funded documentary

by Jordan Green

Philip Krongon, one of the young historian-filmmakers, sat near the back of the theater at the Greensboro Historical Museum last Saturday as the credits rolled in the director’s cut of The Young ‘Mountaineers’: An Untold Story of Montagnards in Greensboro.

The Smith High School student’s shaggy bowl cut was fashionably lightened, but the intent look on his face and reserved composure would quickly set him apart from any teenager cruising the Friendly Shopping Center.

In the film, he wears the same stylish shag albeit without the lightening, and addresses a basic question that is more complicated than one might think:

What does it mean to be Montagnard? For starters, the very name is an imposition of French colonialism — literally “mountain people” of the central highlands of Vietnam, along with parts of Cambodia and Laos. Today, with about 9,000 people, Greensboro has one of the largest Montagnard populations in the world outside of Vietnam.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Krongon says in the film of the name “Montagnard.” Later, he explained that there are several different tribes, each with their own unique language and unique culture, including the Bunong (also called Mnong and Phnong), Radai, Jarai, Bunar and Kho. They are united in having assisted the US Special Forces in the anti-communist cause during the Vietnam war, suffering severe persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese after the war and fleeing their homeland.

H’Lois Mlo, a senior at Eastern High School, addresses the question from a different angle in the film. She reels off the names of the tribes, adding, “Put together the people, and unite as one.”

The film was made through a grant to the Greensboro Historical Museum from the Smithsonian Affiliates and the Asian Pacific American Center. The staff at the historical museum reached out through church sponsors to find Montagnard teenagers, convened about a dozen of them to discuss what kind of story they wanted to tell about themselves, put video cameras in their hands and then set them loose to interview each other.

“They don’t realize — how can they? — that having something at the Smithsonian is a pretty big deal,” said Ann Saslow, a refugee sponsor from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. “The film is being shown here in Greensboro, and then it goes on to San Francisco. It’s going to be in the Smithsonian collection.”

Like many of the proud sponsors who thronged the lobby of the historical museum for the Jan. 25 premiere, Saslow spoke with a syrupy Southern accent marking her as being from a different age, or — to put it in her words — “older than dirt.”

Through a convergence between Holy Trinity’s expanding real-estate investments and refugee assistance program, the church ended up providing housing to a number of Montagnard families at the western end of its campus between Greene and Simpson streets, including Philip, whom Saslow called “quite an outstanding young man.”

But she wound up sponsoring another child, Klen Kpa, who also wound up participating in the documentary project.

Another Montagnard family living on Holy Trinity’s campus had befriended and taken in a man who was separated from his family, known as Uncle Thi.

“Uncle Thi’s family was finally going to get to come,” Saslow recalled. “If I’m not mistaken it was a good long separation, maybe five years. I was at the airport when they came in. It was a sight to see. I said, ‘Give me the 10-year-old girl.’ She’s now an honors students at Weaver Academy.”

The difference between the life Kpa and the other Montagnard teenagers left behind and the one they have now is as dramatic as time-traveling from the western North Carolina frontier in the early 19 th century to the urbanized Triad of 2014.

“I had to help my parents in the field and help clean the house,” Kpa said of her life back in Vietnam. “When I came here, all I do is go to school.

In Vietnam, I would go to school for one, maybe two or three hours and then go home and help with the work.”

Similarly, Krongon was born in the jungle in Cambodia. He described the village where they lived, Sre Am Bon, as a village of maybe two families.

At the film premiere, his father slid into the seat beside his son. A compact man, the elder sat with quiet intensity, but in response to an extended hand and greeting from a stranger his face broke out into a wide grin. As a former combatant who was on the losing side of the war, Krongon’s father would face certain persecution if he tried to return home for a visit.

“My father and his friends, they were in a group fighting in the Vietnam war,” the son said. “When they left Vietnam after the war, the group they were in went back to where my mom’s parents lived in Cambodia.”

Before they came to Greensboro, many of the young Montagnards could not have imagined the devices they would encounter — traffic lights, for instance. But some of the newer technology — Skype accounts paired with internet connections, to be specific — are knitting back together old relationships.

“I will try to spread out to my community through Skype that it’s not the same as it used to be,” Philip Krongon said. “Sometimes I would tell stories about the stereotypes we face with our history. We don’t have racism yet because we’re poorer. When we see guests, we treat them as family.” !