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HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Sinking new roots in far-off lands

By Edward GirarletSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 1980


* When they lived in Vientiane, Laos, civil servant Thamma Phiaked and his family did not have enough food. Nor was he allowed to work after the Communist takeover. Now he lives in San Diego and feels that his children at least have a chance for a new future.

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* Hmong refugee Vang Doa is looking forward to a life as a farmer in his newly adopted country -- French Guiana. Already he and his family have planted enough of their own rice, bananas, and vegetables for survival. Now he hopes to plant enough for sale on the export market.

* It took Vietnamese Tran Dinh Thuc more than two years to obtain permission for his 7-year-old daughter to leave Saigon. She arrived to join him in Paris last summer on a regular Air France flight, but could speak no French. Now she goes to a local school and is picking up new words every day.m

In a steady stream, many of the world's homeless today are crisscrossing the oceans to put down new roots in alien, often Western, lands.

despite the enormous difficulties of integrating into totally different cultures, resettlement for the most part is working. That is the overriding feeling among relief officials, especially those concerned with the mass resettlement of Indo-Chinese.

Resettlement in distant countries is not the solution that these officials prefer. They would rather see the uprooted wanderers repatriated back to their original homes and villages. Failing that, they would like to see such refugees find new homes in neighboring nations with similar cultures and customs.

But these more ideal solutions are frequently impossible to achieve. Hence they try to make the best of resettling the homeless in more remote, third countries -- a process that makes heavy demands on both refugees and their helpers.

"It is extremely important to prepare a community for the refugee and the refugee for the community; for refugees to successfully adapt to their new environment, they must be made welcome," says Carol Hecklinger, assistant coordinator for domestic programs of the Office of the US Coordinator for Refugee Affairs.

"There is no one single resettlement model," she points out. "Practically every third-asylum country ranging from Sweden to China has adopted a different approach to satisfy its own needs. But the overall end product is self-sufficiency for the refugee."

Basically, there are two types of resettlement procedures. Some countries prefer to keep refugees in special centers, gradually easing them into new life styles. Others try to make refugees self-sufficient as rapidly as possible.

France and Switzerland, for example, have created special "adaptation" hotels to help new arrivals overcome culture shock. Help is offered through language courses, job counseling, work-training programs, and housing and education sessions.

Only then, perhaps months later, do they resettle in different parts of the country. And even then, volunteer groups continue to monitor their needs, particularly in Switzerland.

In the United States, the tendency is to encourage refugees to mesh quickly with the local community and become self-sufficient. Volunteer agencies, which have carried the main load of resettling refugees since World War I, try to smooth the process along.

But, warns an International Rescue Committee official in California, "for a refugee to have a house and a job does not mean he has licked the problems of integration. It's not just a matter of teaching Laotian refugees to speak English or how to shop in a supermarket. These are uprooted people who have gone through severe traumatic experiences from war, persecution, and hunger."