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Southeast Asians in Boston make adjustment with a little help

By Cheryl C. SullivanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1984


The red-brick triple decker, sandwiched between two similar tenements on a long street of three-story, three-family houses, would be inconspicuous if not for the women in white blouses and long dark skirts clustered on the stoop.

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Disappearing inside, the women chat excitedly as they file up a dark, narrow staircase to the third floor. In the hallway they pause, kick off their sandals, and enter an apartment that has become sacred to Cambodian refugees in Greater Boston - a Buddhist temple.

Here, two monks draped in the customary golden robes instruct the people in ''right living'' and officiate at religious celebrations and ceremonies. ''The temple is the basis of our culture,'' explains Som Sunna, a refugee who fled Cambodia during the Vietnam invasion and came to America in 1980.

But this temple also serves another purpose. ''In the United States, refugees feel nervous because they can't speak English; they feel homesick. Here, the people can gather and speak with each other and reminisce,'' Mr. Som says. ''They talk about the suffering and the hard times, but they also learn there can be safety for them, depending on (the degree of) their faith.''

In many ways, the Buddhist temple in the triple decker is indicative of the cultural adjustments that Cambodians and other Southeast Asian refugees have had to make in America. For instance, children who had no formal education in their native countries are enrolled in the public schools. Refugees who were farmers must learn to cope with subways and supermarkets.

Of the 18,650 refugees who have resettled in Massachusetts since 1976, 16,500 are from the war-torn countries of Vietnam, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and Laos. More than half have settled in the Greater Boston area. When they step off the plane, the refugees are in the hands of volunteer resettlement agencies that find them a home, provide English classes, and offer job training. State agencies provide welfare and health care, among other services.

There are many success stories:

* Dieu (Ronny) Thai, one of the ''boat people'' who fled Vietnam, came to the US in 1979 with virtually nothing and now owns the Vietnam Restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. In a quiet way, he is proud of the restaurant and its culinary authenticity. ''The beef soup, we cook from the beef bone,'' he says. ''It takes a whole day. Today, we cook the soup for tomorrow.''

* Of the 35 Vietnamese students who graduated last June from Brighton High School in the bilingual program, 30 went on to higher education, says Maria Nguyen, Vietnamese guidance counselor with the Boston public schools. Eight students received scholarships to prestigious local universities, she says.

But the triumphs of these refugees are hard-won, and there are many others who have not yet adjusted to American culture despite the commitment of the government and volunteer agencies to help them in their first years here. Indeed , the resettlement process will not be complete until the refugees themselves build ''self-help organizations'' to assist the new arrivals and to lobby for their rights, says Ed Crotty of the Massachusetts Office of Refugee Resettlement.

However, many refugees have been reluctant to become politically active.

''One thing you must understand. During the time of Pol Pot (in Cambodia) the people were stripped to nothing. You have only the clothes on your body. No toothbrush. No toothpaste,'' says Rithipol Yem of the Cambodian Community of Massachusetts. ''You have only rice soup to eat. Not rice, but rice soup. Then, back to the field to work - to the death for some. In the evening, there were indoctrination classes in communism. So, your health, your mental health, your hopes were stripped.''