Survival English for Asian refugees

The teacher turns to the 12-year-old Cambodian boy holding up a picture of a man hoeing. "Song, what are you?" she asks.

"I am farm," replies Song.

"I am a farmer,"m she corrects him.

For Song, this is survival English -- enough to help him find his way around Boston, count change, and begin an entirely new life next fall in the public schools.

He is one of 51 newly arrived Cambodian and Laotian 10- to-16-year-olds being introduced to American life and language at the Asian Newcomer Youth Program. Begun July 6 at the Commonwealth School in Boston's Back Bay, this hastily designed but much-needed summer program is helping to turn yet another generation of immigrants into Americans.

Song and his fellow students are refugees from the smoldering war in Cambodia. They are among the latest wave of Indochinese to flood into United States. Earlier programs, following the 1975 airlift out of Vietnam, brought in 400,000 Vietnamese, Chinese, and Laotians.

Now, after months and often years of being juggled about in Southeast Asia -- fleeing the Pol Pot regime, swimming the Mekong River, waiting in United Nations resettlement camps in Thailand -- the Cambodians are arriving.

The process has not been easy. A change in administration in Washington, a delay in federal funding for groups sponsoring refugees -- even, in Massachusetts, a budget impasse that held up welfare checks for newly arrived refugees -- have all interrupted the latest effort: the otherwise well-planned Khmer Guided Placement Project.

Operated by the American Council for Volunteer Agencies (ACVS) and the Cambodian National Association, it runs on about $650,000 in federal funds. Its goal, says ACVS project coordinator Camille Mahon, is "to try to build stable Cambodian communities" around the nation -- including southern California, where earlier Cambodian refugees, settled in scattered towns, have tended to want to migrate. The program (known informally as the "Cambodian cluster project" because of its effort to build ethnic communities) targets 12 American cities to receive the 10,000 Cambodian "free cases" who will come to the US this year. These are refugees without close family members in the United States to sponsor them, and are among the 32,000 Cambodians who will reach American shores this year.

Boston, whose 300-member Khmer community had already established a Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, is one of the target cities.

Some here feel the city was not ready for the influx. Translators were few, cultural awareness was scantly, and the financially troubled Boston public schools were cutting back services for refugee children.

Last spring, nevertheless, the Cambodians began arriving, sponsored by such agencies as the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees and the American Council for Nationality Service.

Enter Holly Lockwood, a Chinese-speaking 14-year veteran of a Chinatown program that teaches English as a second language. With typically American spontaneity, and with a gift of the Commonwealth School's facilities and a $15, 000 donation from its founder, Charles Merrill, she hatched the Newcomer program.

the goal: teaching basic English to teen-age refugees.

The challenge: dealing with many students who have never been to school and many of whom are only semiliterate in their own language.

"We operate in three languages," shy says, pointing to a sign in Lao, English , and Khmer on the wall of the gracious school building on tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue. "The children are not forced to speak English," she adds -- except in the two English classes each day, where nothing else is spoken.

The other classes are art and gym, where English-Speaking Commonwealth School students, working with translators, teach such typically American activities as making posters and playing hopscotch. The afternoons are given over to swimming , cooking, dance classes, or sailing on the nearby Charles River -- where the teachers in the community boating program have to figure out how to say "jib" and "boom" in Khmer.

With her colleague, Xai Yang, a Laotian teen-ager who arrived 2 1/2 years ago and has just graduated from high school in nearby Newton, she originally set up the six-week summer program for 25 students. But the need was so great that they doubled the numbers -- even though they money was not in hand.

"We're running on hope," says Miss Lockwood. She has approached "nearly every foundation" for $5,000 in additional funds, she says, but finds that most of them are already committed and are not able to respond to such sudden needs.

The program, she feels, is not only important as a place to learn English, make friends, and discover American culture. "Because most of these kids have been through so much tragedy," she says, "they need a lot of counseling."

She points to one child. He hid under a basket and watched his seven brothers and sisters killed, and he was himself later captured and tortured by Pol Pot soldiers, she said. Another 12-year-old boy walked from Vietnam to Thailand alone after losing his parents. Many have only one parent.

A few, she says, present difficult behavior problems. But most (at least in the presence of this reporter) were smiling, well-dressed, and full of fun -- a testament, in part, to the effectiveness of the sponsors in rounding up clothes for them.

Are the 300 Indochinese coming into Massachusetts each month -- part of the national quota of 130,000 refugees of all nationalities -- a drain on the state's already-squeezed budget? The state's coordinator for refugee resettlement, Tom Devouton, doesn't think so.

"The overall goal is to make the refugees self-sufficient as soon as possible ," he says. Although the refugees are entitled to cash assistance for up to three years, most stay on welfare no longer than a year. "They tend to be highly motivated," he says, adding. "They don't have a welfare attitude."

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