Asian refugees face a push-button world

The trip from an impoverished peasant life in Southeast Asia to the industrialized United States is a journey that crosses cultural differences of staggering proportions.

Light switches are a novelty. Shopping in a grocery store can be overwhelming. American customs may seem strange. And new skills and language must be acquired.

When one Cambodian refugee was confronted with the problem of a washing machine that constantly overflowed, his solution was to cut a hole in the floor to drain the water. The landlord, not surprisingly, was unimpressed.

"The refugees' experience is something I don't think any of us should minimize. They have given up all that is familiar to them," says Margie Ioki of the International Institute and Agape Fellowship in Los Angeles.

But the ongoing process of adaptation in southern California, where many indochinese refugees are settling, is primarily a story of success.

"Given the barriers they begin with, the resettlement is going very well," says Bunny Hetrick, director of the Catholic Immigration and Resettlement Agency in orange County. "They do want to work and they do want to be a contributory part of society."

Still, say assistance officials who gathered for a recent seminar in Long Beach sponsored by the Southern California Association of Governments, many problems remain.

Racial differences do exist, they say, sometimes with other minorities who are competing for limited public resources and sometimes with whites concerned with a drop in housing values if minorities move into the neighborhood.

Affordable housing for the immigrants is scant. Large families and their relatives, sometimes 10 or more, may crowd into two- and three-bedroom apartments. The opportunity to learn skilled jobs exists, assistance officials say, but it is sometimes missed because the prime job markets are far from their homes and commuting, particularly for new arrivals, is difficult.

Government bureaucracies, some seminar participants suggested, approach the refugee problem in disjointed fashion with inadequately trained staffs.A shortage of bilingual government workers, said one participant, is critical.

But others hailed the efficiency of the State of California and the responsiveness demonstrated by the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

The burden of the resettlement process, however, falls on private agencies. A twice-weekly meeting in New York of the American Council of Volunteer Agencies selects sponsor agencies for each incoming refugee.

Some 14,000 Indochinese refugees enter the United States each month under quotas set by the federal government and sponsor agencies. Most are reunited with family members who already have made the transition, but there are still thousands more who must be introduced, a step at a time, to their new world.

Because Camp Pendleton was first used in 1975 to process the Indochinese immigrants, a large number of those arriving today are settling with their families in southern California. An estimated 25,000 live in Orange County and another 600 more continue to arrive each month.

A new county zoning standard, requiring 25 percent of new housing in Orange County be affordable for low- and moderate-income families, is resulting in some reasonably priced housing. But $300 and $400 rents are still common and $100, 000 homes typical.

Most refugee families are managing, primarily because there are often two or three incomes per household, usually from unskilled labor.

"Large families are their social security system," says Lanore Jacobs of the Department of Public Social Services at the Orange County Human Services Agency. "They band together in a support system, and it seems to work." She estimates that only 10 percent of the Indochinese refugees are on welfare.

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