Refugee-aid groups react swiftly to Reagan budget cuts

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Shock waves from some of the Reagan administration's proposed budget cuts travel far -- all the way to Southwest Asian refugee camps packed with 196,468 Indochinese men, women, and children as of Jan. 31.

Almost before anyone in Washington noticed, refugee program coordinators in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand toted up the figures. They found that the Reagan administration was proposing to cut $72 million in 1981 and $102 million in 1972 from the State Department and Department of Health and Human Services refugee assistance programs.

So John and Esther Fitzstevens took a break from working with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong and the Philippines to deliver a message to their fellow Americans: Indochinese refugees urgently need new American sponsors.

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From their daily work with the 20,000 Vietnamese refugees overflowing Hong Kong's camps, the Fitzstevenses estimate that three times more people are fleeing Vietnam this year than last. This flood of "boat people" continues despite evidence that only about half the refugees survive the dangerous sea journey to freedom.

Mrs. Fitzstevens explains that the risk has increased because dwindling international interest has cut off the humanitarian naval patrols that rescued thousands off the Vietnamese coast in past years.

Dramatic rescues at sea continue, say the Fitzstevenses, but not as the result of coordinated government programs. In one case, Mrs. Fitzstevens recalls, an overloaded boat was steered to a passing freighter by a persistent school of dolphins.

Based on what they've learned from the most recent arrivals in Hong Kong, John and Esther Fitzstevens, who both speak fluent Vietnamese, are convinced that the flow of refugees is likely to increase over the next year. So during their visit to Chicago, the couple thanked church groups that have sponsored refugees and tried to recruit new sponsors.

The Fitzstevenses are returning to Hong Kong, where they are directors of East Asia Affairs for World Relief Corporation (WRC). This Wheaton, Ill.-based international relief and development agency has arranged United States sponsorship for more than 30,000 refugees. WRC vice-president Andy Bishop told the Monitor this sponsorship program has "an 85 to 90 percent success rate, based on the refugees being employed and self-sufficient within a year."

One reason for the success rate is Djoua Xiong, a Hmong from Laos who works from a Chicago base to help newcomers settle into American life. According to Djoua, the main difficulty at present is lack of new sponsorships.He notes that the US is willing to accept 14,000 Indochinese refugees every month from the more than 150,000 Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians cleared for resettlement. Andy Bishop is particularly anxious to recruit more US sponsors immediately, knowing that the US government soon may cut back on the number of refugees permitted to enter the country.

Just a year ago there were backlogs of refugees in Southeast Asian refugee processing centers waiting for officials to complete complex paper work. Now, says John Fitzstevens, "in Hong Kong and Bataan, the officials are moving at top speed.There's no backlog, they're short of people to process."

"The big backlog," Andy Bishop adds, "is wth sponsors in the United States, where people seem to have forgotten about the refugee problem."

John and Esther Fitzstevensens make sure that refugees waiting for US sponsors don't waster their time in the camps. Remembering the "cross-cultural" problems she encountered raising her four children in Vietnam for 17 years, Mrs. Fitzstevens works hard to help the Vietnamese prepare for life in America.

"Many things which they consider polite, we consider rude, and vice versa," she says. So, for instance, she prepares them for sitting close to the dining table as Westerners do --considered a sign of greed in Vietnam.

Mrs. Fitzstevens finds tremendous gratitude for her work, particularly for her practice of inviting Vietnamese for meals in her home. "The Communists told a lot of lies about white people," she says. After one meal, a Vietnamese told her that "that the Communists told us no dogs or yellow race would even be allowed in a white man's yard, and here I am in your home, eating cake made with a white woman's hands."

She says that "when they [refugees] feel love and concern from the people who were meant to be so bad, it really means a lot."

WRC workers in the Hong Kong and Philippines camps also try to provide the refugees with useful skills. John Fitzstevens explains that they expanded their typing classes after a number of refugees wrote back from America to say these classes helped them land good jobs quickly

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