Refuge in Providence; Cambodians Find A New Life In Rhode Island

The door to the third-floor apartment of an aging triplex is not locked. The visitors take their shoes off and enter. The room is bare except for a low table that serves as an altar. It is adorned with flowers and two jade-green soapstone carvings of the Buddha and is decorated with pastel colors. The room is silent.

It is a sanctuary from the working-class neighborhood outside -- and from the memories of war-torn Cambodia, from which more than 1,600 refugees fled to build a new community in this small New England city.

''We carry our temple with us always,'' a barefoot monk says. ''We are the temple.''

Like the circuit riders -- Christian ministers who rode from congregation to congregation on horseback -- the monk Maha Ghosananda has been touring Cambodian communities in America since he turned up at Los Angeles Airport with all of his belongings in a tattered cloth sack.

Before he arrived in the United States a year ago, he quelled a potentially violent rivalry at Sakaeo refugee camp at the Thai border. (''The refugee camps become our temple, the prisons, the ghettos . . . the battlefields,'' he says.)

Maha Ghosananda has alighted in Providence, for the moment at least. Clad in a saffron robe with a red nylon ski vest poking out from under the loose folds, the monk greets the visitors in the kitchen of what is now a Buddhist pagoda. One of only three Cambodian monks living in the US, he has come to help rebuild a community.

His visage reveals two sides of the Cambodian struggle. When he is silent, wrinkles bespeak his surviving the ravages of war, knowing that his family did not.

When he talks, his face lights with youthful enthusiasm.He becomes so animated that he can hardly sit still. Like an acrobat, he springs from his chair to turn off the kettle and then to pour the jasmine tea.

The number of Cambodian refugees has swelled. The State Department says there are now about 53,000 Cambodians living in the US. In January, 113 arrived in Providence.

Accompanying the influx are problems that social workers and members of the Cambodian community are well acquainted with.

Finding work, especially when factories are more apt to be laying off than hiring, is difficult. Fortunately for the newcomers, Providence is a center for electronics and jewelry enterprises, which have been less prone to recession than heavy industries.

The Opportunities Industrialization Center, which employs three Cambodian translators, has been instrumental in helping new arrivals penetrate the language barrier.

Cambodians generally report that it is easier to find jobs when accompanied by their American sponsors. Many complain of discrimination, but according to sponsors, poor English is the main reason that newcomers fail to get or retain jobs.

According to Svaing Kim, an emerging young leader of the community, Cambodians who are literate in their own language pick up English fairly easily. Those who can't learn English in the special language programs are mostly from the rural areas of Cambodia and have little or no previous education.

Social workers and specialists in refugee affairs say there is frequently much friction between the old and new settlers. The divisions are especially apparent among the Cambodians, where class distinctions mark the different waves of immigration.

The first refugees to turn up on American shores were from the educated middle class, many from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Those who knew French were even more adept at picking up English.

Later, those Cambodians trickling out of the camps along the Thai border were often from the countryside, and were largely illiterate.

The most recent arrivals have a mixed background. The orientation programs at the reprocessing centers in Indonesia or the Philippines, where many were placed several months ago, give them a head start over those who were held at the camps.

One of the most frustrating experiences for those who were trained in a certain field in their homeland is not being able to use those skills in America.

Somaly Po and her husband got jobs at Cable Electric Company assembling switches and other supplies when they arrived six years ago. She was an elementary school teacher and he was an architect in Phnom Penh.

Eventually her husband's abilities were recognized and he was moved to the engineering department. But according to Ms. Po, the strain on their relationship during their first months here was so great that they were soon divorced.

''I want to get back into teaching,'' she says, but feels she is not quite ready. She says that at the temporary refugee camp in Arkansas, where she was first located, she found it too difficult to teach the young children - they reminded her of her four children who she left in Cambodia and now presumes are dead.

''I cried too much when I saw children,'' she says.

According to both Mr. Kim and Sina Bieu, a Cambodian translator at the state welfare department, educational achievements in Cambodia often mean very little in the US. Diplomas are not transferable, so that to take up a past profession means going back to school.

''To get a degree, people need a grant - and there aren't many of them,'' says Mr. Kim.

Ms. Po says that women shed their traditional domestic roles and get jobs to help send their husbands through school. ''Women often go to work before men,'' she says.

The role of Cambodian women has changed in other ways: They no longer bear upward of six children.

Ms. Bieu sees a real need to convince Cambodians, especially the most recent arrivals, that the Western life style is not conducive to the large families characteristic of Southeast Asia. She has applied for a second job - as a caseworker at a family-planning clinic - so that she can encourage families to practice birth control.

Most of the new arrivals in Providence are part of the ''secondary migration'' from other US cities. Forty percent of the Cambodians on cash assistance from Rhode Island fall into this group, according to John Finck, assistant to the state coordinator of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The refugees have put a strain on local aid facilities, and Providence is seeking to have the city declared an ''impacted area'' by the US Office of Refugee Resettlement. Such a designation would increase their level of social-services funding and increase cash- and medical-assistance levels from the federal government.

The catch is that the amount of federal aid received is tied to the number of refugees -- Cuban, Indochinese, and others -- the government says there are here. But estimates by state and federal officials do not agree.

The refugees coming to Providence have not included those coming in under the notorious-sounding ''KGP'' (actually, ''Khmer Guided Placement''). The KGP program was designed to lessen the concentration of Cambodians in southern California and to create new Cambodian communities in 12 US cities.

Under the program, a cluster of families who have no close relatives already living in the US are located away from the impact areas. One of the designated settlements is Boston, 50 miles north of Providence. Another is New York, a three-hour drive to the south. As soon as the new refugees realize its proximity , Providence becomes a haven.

Kathy McCaughy, the refugee coordinator at the International Institute, the principal resettlement agency in Providence, says ''there's no reason to stay away from Providence . . . rents are less than half'' of those in New York or Boston.

Cambodians are often lumped together with other Indochinese ethnic groups by immigration authorities. The Khmer have been trying to make themselves known since 1975 when a group of seven turned up in Rhode Island.

''An American friend showed me a cigarette box made of bamboo,'' relates Mr. Kim. ''Bamboo grows fast, chokes other plants in its way, and grows right back after it is cut down. It is the symbol that Mao (Tse-Tung) gave to the Vietnamese. My friend told me that 'one of my people' made it. My mouth dropped open. He must have thought I was very strange.''

Svaing says that Cambodians and Vietnamese have been bitter enemies for centuries and that even now many will have nothing to do with the Vietnamese refugees in the US. Some Cambodians support the Khmer Rouge (which held the country in a ''reign of terror'' during the mid-'70s), just because of the animosity they feel toward the present Vietnamese-backed government of Heng Samrin.

''The Cambodians are very political people,'' says Cindy Coleman, a Cambodian specialist with the Indochinese Refugee Action Center in Washington. She explains that this has less to do with economic background than with political alignments in Cambodia. And, she says, ''it is difficult to say why classes supported who they did.'' She suggests that meetings between Prince Norodom Sihanouk (a former Cambodian leader) and other political leaders have helped ease tensions in Cambodian communities on this side of the globe.

In Providence, where sympathies are so clearly defined that only Prince Sihanouk bothers to send representatives, politics is less important than religion.

''Our biggest problem at this time is the Buddhist-Christian division,'' says Mr. Kim, who recently was hired as a community liaison to the refugee resettlement office.

He explains that Cambodians who convert to Christianity are isolated from the Buddhist majority.

''There are three churches that are filled with Cambodians on Sunday,'' he says, ''but few really believe in Christ.''

He says the refugees in the Thai camps who are waiting to be transferred to a third country ''pretend to be Christians so that the Christian groups will help them get out. They 'make a deal' for charity.'' After they have been in the US for a while, he says, they stop embracing Christianity and rejoin their Buddhist heritage.

Sina Bieu, who came to the US at the same time as Mr. Kim, sees the situation differently:

''I became Christian because God blessed me, not to be American,'' she says.

After living here five months, she had a car accident and became so depressed that she tried to kill herself. It was at her most despairing time, she says, that she discovered Christianity and was healed.

She says that most Cambodians went to Buddhist pagodas only twice a year, for the harvest and new year festivals. She says ''people understand Christianity better than Buddhism because of the language.'' Many Buddhist prayers and chants are read in Pali and Sanskrit, defunct languages. But with Bibles translated into Cambodian, religion is more accessible, she says.

''Now, I cannot become part of Cambodian community,'' she says. ''No one helps me.''

When asked how he gets along with Christian society, Maha Ghosananda remains somber for what seems an eternity, then breaks into a childlike laughter. He bounds from his chair and fetches a portrait of the Madonna from the back room.

''They gave this to me,'' he says, still giggling, ''and I give them pictures of Buddha.''

The monk plans to open a monastery in Providence so that young boys can receive religious and moral training before they begin school.

Does he think this will conflict with Western traditions?

He shakes his head. ''All America become Buddhists,'' he answers, his eyes sparkling playfully.

When the monk is not busy teaching meditation to Westerners or giving lectures on Theravada Buddhism, the main sect in Southeast Asia, he is working for peace in Cambodia. He organized the Khmer Council for Peace before he came to America and has since taken his plea to the United Nations. He has met with world leaders on the subject and has received letters of support from Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama after he organized a day of prayer for peace in Cambodia two summers ago.

In the same way that Maha Ghosananda has encouraged peace overseas, he is seeking to ease tensions among his neighbors.

Last winter, children in the neighborhood didn't know what to make of the monk. He knew little English, but after some time figured out that they thought he was Santa Claus. Avoiding lengthy explanations, the monk began to carry candy with him to pass out on the streets.

The Hispanics in the neighborhood find him somewhat of an anomaly. The monk says that they like his bright saffron robe and have asked him if they could feel his shaven head. He says he figured the best way to bring them closer to the Cambodian community was to have some of his writings translated. Now he passes out papers that read (in Spanish):

''Compassion and 'Metta' ('lovingkindness') are the most precious things in life . . . We can practice compassion if we recognize that each human being is a member of humanity and the human family is more important than differences of religion, culture, race, and creed. In the end, there is no difference. The world is our house. To love and to help is our religion and sanctury.''

It is this message, Maha Ghosananda says, that the Cambodians want to deliver to their new country.

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