Asian refugees find life in US a mixed blessing

THE snow is piled high outside the Cheas' modest two-bedroom apartment in East Boston. Looking out the kitchen window at the steely gray sky promising another storm, Chea Khorng shakes his head, smiles at his visitor, and pretends to shiver.

This is the first Boston winter for Mr. Chea, his wife, Nuon Saran, his two young sons, his brother, and his brother-in-law, who arrived in the United States last May from a refugee holding camp in Thailand. Adjusting to the new climate is just one of many challenges they have faced after fleeing from Phnom Penh in 1977.

Although many Indochinese refugees from Vietnam, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and Laos prefer to settle in warmer states such as California or Texas, Mr. Chea is glad to be in this Northeastern city.

''Boston has good schools, and it is easy to find a job,'' he says, referring to the local fishing industry and restaurant trade. Mr. Chea was a student, and his wife worked for Khmer Airlines before the couple escaped the purges of the Pol Pot regime with their children and relatives. They hoped to join Mr. Chea's father, who fled to Thailand earlier and was admitted to the US in August of 1981.

''We were afraid the Communists would kill us, that's why we escaped,'' says Nuon Toan, Mrs. Chea's brother. But even when they reached the relative safety of a Thai refugee camp, they witnessed soldiers shooting at refugees as they tried to enter. Once admitted, they were not allowed to go outside. During their stay, each person was allotted meager rations of rice and water.

As the Cheas recall the grim conditions in the camps, their two sons, Sokan, age 8, and Che, age 6, burst into the kitchen after playing outside. Flashing wide grins, they talk about school friends, playing kickball, and favorite TV shows.

Although ties to their native country remain strong, Mr. Chea and his wife are studying full time to learn English and are preparing to take high school equivalency tests. Mr. Chea would eventually like to go into work with computers. His brother, Then, is studying electronics.

The family has met American neighbors through a local church, but there are few Cambodian families nearby, and they miss relatives still in Kampuchea.

The Boston area is home for about 25,000 Indochinese refugees (legal and illegal) who share many of the challenges faced by the Cheas: adjusting to the colder climate, learning English, struggling to land a job, and separation from family and friends. In a city bristling with racial intolerance, Southeast Asians have also been subjected to harassment and physical attacks.

Despite these difficulties, many Indochinese refugees are relieved to be in the US after enduring hardship for months or years waiting to come here. Once they arrive, resettlement agencies in Boston and other cities help ease the transition to a new culture.

The International Institute of Boston (IIB), one of more than 30 branch offices nationwide, meets incoming refugees at the airport, finds housing, and helps the newcomers with immigration questions and financial arrangements.

Like similar agencies around the country, the institute also offers English classes and employment assistance. Staff members and volunteers work closely with the newly arrived families for about 90 days to help them adjust to their new communities. They make follow-up visits when necessary.

''The material aspects of life here are a marvelous change for (the refugees) ,'' says IIB staff member An Ton Tot. ''But we cannot forget they have left behind people and things no one can replace.''

''On the whole, Southeast Asian refugees come here with a strong degree of resilience because of what they've already gone through,'' says Leo Dorsey, former director of the institute. ''That allows them to adjust to this country perhaps better than other ethnic groups. They are a highly motivated, work-oriented group of people.''

In the past two years it has become increasingly difficult for Indochinese (with the exception of Amerasian children and their mothers) to gain access to the US. Since admitting some 650,000 Southeast Asian refugees since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the US government has set lower ceilings on the number of refugees allowed to enter each year. About 150,000 refugees are still waiting in Thai camps for access to a third country such as Austria, France, Canada, or the US.

Mr. Dorsey recently traveled to Thailand and Vietnam to assist the OrderlyDeparture Program, the official exit route for Vietnamese refugees.

For the first time, he says, more refugees are leaving Vietnam through the safe, legal channel of the Orderly Departure Program than are escaping on foot or by boat.

Nu Huynh, an ethnic Chinese, left Vietnam the hard way. In January of 1980, Mrs. Huynh, her five young children, and one of her brothers fled on foot from their small farm outside Can Tho in South Vietnam to escape the Communists who were ransacking the area. Her husband stayed behind in the house so authorities would not be suspicious.

After walking for four days, Mrs. Huynh and the rest of the group reached the coast and boarded a boat with about 55 other refugees. Eluding Thai pirates that plague about 60 percent of the refugee boats, the family arrived safely in Thailand, where they spent seven months in a holding camp before gaining admission to the US.

Now, three years later, they live in a working-class neighborhood in the town of Everett, north of Boston. Relaxing in their spare three-room apartment as the children dash in and out with friends after school, Mrs. Huynh talks about the ''good future'' she sees for them. She is pleased the family was allowed to come to the United States so her children, ranging in age from 6 to 11, could receive a good education. Her brother Hoa has a job in a restaurant.

Nhi, the oldest daughter, has a quiet, polite manner and answers questions thoughtfully. She enjoys school, especially math class, but she says other students sometimes make fun of her. ''I don't say anything because I don't want to make trouble,'' she says with a shrug.

Mrs. Huynh has been harassed by ''tough kids'' in the neighborhood and sometimes will not allow her children outside to play.

Mr. Huynh just arrived in the United States in late February after a four-year separation from his family, but Mrs. Huynh's mother and two of her brothers are still in her home country.

''I'm happy here, but (the rest of) my family is in Vietnam,'' she says. ''I don't know when I'll see them again.''

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