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There just aren't enough willing hands to help refugees in new US 'homeland'

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 1983


The summertime heat outside her family's dilapidated triple-decker house sharpens Padapsy's recollections of her first New England winter. Laos was long behind and adjustment to the rigors of a new culture - including the search for Americans who would help uneasy visitors - lay ahead.

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Her family had never seen snow, nor used escalators, supermarkets, or laundromats. In their steamy homeland they had never heard of indoor heating. And when their blankets proved no match for Boston's snowy months, they simply did not know to turn on the heat - the central heat - in their new home.

It was an American friend who told them what their instincts didn't - turn on the heat.

Their friend had offered a simple and seemingly obvious suggestion. Yet for the family it was a priceless boost in gaining a cultural toe-hold. Padapsy, a young hair stylist who now can joke in broken English about that chilly first winter, says it's nice to know her American friend is near to explain the new situations that continue to stump her and the family.

In the lull between headlines and statistics documenting the waves of immigrants that have hit the shores of the United States since 1975 (837,000 in all), a network of American volunteers is at work quietly helping Southeast Asian, Eastern European, African, and Caribbean refugees to ease into the community.

But ''passion fatigue,'' says one federal Health and Human Services Department (HHS) official, is slowing the supply of volunteers, as the heart-rending stories of refugee struggles fade from front-page headlines.

Cultural orientation is the kind of intangible need that falls between the cracks of government and privately funded courses in English, job training, and urban survival skills that refugees so eagerly take. It is not something that can be gleaned from a film, a course, or reading a book.

Cultural orientation demands first-hand experience with an American who can, for example, explain the concept of an address to a primitive hill-country family who never lived on a street and never received correspondence like bills and junk mail. American friends can help Eastern European refugees get accustomed to searching for a job, sometimes for months, or paying for social services. These refugees come from socialist systems where employment is mandatory and social services are free.

''You just can't convey to someone in a very, very different culture what another is like,'' explains Art Shirk, a volunteer who works through the International Institute in Boston. He has been friends with a Cambodian, Nom On, for two years, and with Nom's two brothers and three sisters since their February arrival. ''At Logan (International Airport) we met Nom's family, and we said, 'Let's go,' and headed for the escalators and there was panic. It never occured to me they didn't know what an escalator was. It can be pretty scary if you've never been on one.''

Basic funding - 18 to 36 months of welfare and one-time aid that amounts to $ 525 for each Southeast Asian refugee and $365 for each Eastern European - will clothe and feed refugees and get them on their feet here, says Richard Parkins of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an HHS agency. ''But,'' he adds, ''36 months of benefits is no guarantee of social and economic integration. So the volunteer program is essential.