Boston — Romping in the snow last winter was a first for three teen-age Cambodian boys who fled their war-torn country in 1979. The boys are the first of only a handful of Cambodian "unaccompanied minors" in the United States, and the first students in New England's education and foster care program.
This special study program is sponsored by two US resettlement agencies, the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service and the US Catholic Conference. It's designed for "unaccompanied minors" -- children for whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can find no living family member.
Last August Soneat Hong, Arn Chorn, and Lekhana Seri were released to the US from a Thai "holding" camp and were quickly enrolled in White Mountains Regional High School in Whitefield, New Hampshire.
For them, studying is a stupendous opportunity.
During the Communist takeovers of Cambodia (in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge and again in 1979 by the Vietnamese), their parents were killed (one mother may still be alive), their homes, temples and schools were destroyed, and they faced starvation and cruelty in hard-labor camps.
The three say they|re happy here, and those involved with the program are trying to ensure that their cultural and religious as well as intellectual needs are met.
Like other teenagers, they attend public high school. Under the program, however, their sponsors see that they make many new Cambodian friends -- such as visiting musicians, artists, dancers, former heads of state and prime ministers.
Maha Ghossananda, one of the few hundred Cambodian Buddhist monks to survive the 1975 Communist onslaught, is the boys' spiritual leader. He counsels them and stresses the need to consistently evaluate their actions and goals.
Phyllis Anderson, as part of her graduate studies at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., evaluated attitudes toward the boys at their high school.
"I was overwhelmed at how they were assimilated," she says. "They weren't treated like poor refugees, or punished for not being able to keep up. The principal asked teachers never to lower their expectations, and the boys met the requirements in only four months. Lekhana started his geography class at the bottom level, and became a top student."
That is one of the program's aims -- to bring basic skills up to grade level within a year and a half. Hence it provides English tutors, remedial training, and two to four weeks a year of concentrated Cambodian studies.
"In math and French I think they're exceeding our students," remarks principal Patrick Kelly. "The first week, when we were trying to acquaint them with the campus, they were already telling their teachers: 'I want homework.'"
The US Bill of Rights surprised Lekhana. "I didn't know there was one," he says, "or about the balances of power. I think it's a good idea. My country didn't respect the law it declared in its constitution. It took absolute power over the people."
The boys jumped to the ninth-grade level in the US from less than three years of schooling in Cambodia. Equipped only with "survival" English they had taken in Thailand, they began regular classes last September.
Their English-as-a-second-language teacher, Patricia Gibbons, has seen a vast change since mid-December. "They're improving at a consistently rapid rate and have 85 to 95 percent retention. They are learning howm to learn, rather than relying on their ability to memorize, as they did in Cambodia. They're some of the most exciting students I've had."
Whether the program will benefit others is a persistent question, even in the face of these boys' success.
Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, says of the program: "I applaud Peter Pond [with whom the boys live] and Kitty Dukakis [president of the National Center for Genocide Studies, Inc.] for moving into this crisis situation, helping to salvage the lives of these three.
"Yet I think there is a genuine moral dilemma as to whether this foster plan should be applied to the 1,000 other unaccompanied Cambodian minors still in Thailand.
"A number of refugee experts feel strongly that children will be better integrated if they're kept in Cambodian refugee camps, educated there, and given a chance to develop their lives in the midst of their own people and culture. In the meantime, we must do everything we can to help these children and others, who have been brought here in an act of love, to realize their full potential."
Rabbi Tanenbaum adds, "No one program is the final solution to the problem. We'll have to see how this program works."
Arn disagrees: "I hope the others will be allowed to come, because we need a new generation of leaders in Cambodia."
Lekhana is interested in international law and politics. Soneat wants to study medicine and care for people. Arn says: "I want to do human service work for the UN."
More than 1,000 teenagers (estimates vary) live in four Thailand holding centers -- camps for those not officially declared "refugees." Most have been there for two years. From this group more children are expected to come to the US for the advanced studies program. As of this writing ten have been sent by the UN officials in charge -- but only under special circumstances.
Peter Pond, the foster father of the three boys, returned July 1 from Bangkok after negotiating with the UNHCR and the US embassy there to quicken resettlement.
According to Mr. Pond, Alan Simance, the regional UNHCR representative in Bangkok, says the UNHCR has agreed to speed up the process so that 20 more children would be in the US to start school by Sept. 1. Mr. Pond says: "We're very appreciative of the Thailand military's humanitarianism -- that unaccompanied Cambodian minors are now being allowed resettlement opportunities."
The three boys say children there should soon be released to other countries, because in the past they had been "kidnapped" by the Communist Khmer Rouge to fight thr Vietnamese, and many of their parents and relatives have already been killed. Whether voluntarily or not, close to 400 children disappeared from the camps last November and December.
"The UNHCR is doing everything it can to stop this," says Mr. Pond, who has spoken with authorities there. A senior UNHCR official explains that security has been tightened.
This official says some 1,078 children (of an original 3,000) were reunited with parents or relatives between late 1979 and December 1980. Nine months is the specified time period spent on an all-out search for family members before sending children abroad.