'One American friend is enough'

Hidden within the Vietnamese refugee community, spread across the United States, is a group of people with problems who are not being given the help they need. These are the adolescent women who left Vietnam by boat and are faced with stark realities that accompany uprooting and then replanting in a new and foreign land. Some have families, others are alone.

I have come to know some of their challenges through my experiences, first as a refugee relief worker in Thailand, then as a sponsor of a Vietnamese teen-ager in the United States, and finally as a staff member at the Intergovernmental committee for Migration in Washington. I have also twice had the opportunity in the last year to visit many of the women I first met in Thailand in their new homes across the US - and to learn from them that concerned Americans can play an important role in helping them rebuild their lives.

Resettlement is usually the last stage of movement in the refugee experience and yet it is only the beginning of being an exile. Of the 20 Vietnamese teen-agers I have maintained contact with, 17 said that adjusting to life in the US is harder than their journey from Vietnam and the months they spent in dirty refugee camps. They frequently spoke of certain common problems: culture shock, homesickness, language difficulties, painful memories of physical molestation, misunderstanding of US public assistance programs, and lack of strong friendships with Americans.

Their need is for American support and acceptance. But establishing bonds of trust requires time and a profound commitment on the part of the sponsor or American friend.

Offering assistance to these teen-agers is difficult. Anyone wishing to help must take the initiative as the idea of ''counseling'' is foreign to the Vietnamese and they will rarely seek outside help. Often Vietnamese teen-agers will not share their most sensitive and private thoughts even with their best Vietnamese friend, fearing that gossip might reach the Vietnamese community. This is not to minimize the importance of the Vietnamese community helping teen-agers to resettle in a new country, for such support is crucial. However, for women who need to share concerns considered taboo for conversation by most Vietnamese, an American friend is the best channel for sharing a problem confidentially.

In my experience young Vietnamese women began to share their sensitive problems with me as time passed and our ability to communicate improved. Slowly, we grew to understand each other better. They have taught me about Vietnamese culture, traditions, customs, food, and language. I have helped them better to understand various aspects of life in the US. Encouragement and confidence is what they need most.

Most of the more than 800,000 Americans involved with sponsoring Indochinese refugees have been assisted by one of 10 voluntary agencies. The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) are the two organizations responsible for finding Americans to sponsor unaccompanied teen-agers and children. For me, sponsorship began with filling out a short form and an interview with an official from a voluntary agency. In about five months I was granted the responsibility of sponsoring Suong, a 17 -year-old girl who I came to know while working in Thailand.

My initial tasks as a sponsor involved enrolling Suong in the local high school, finding housing, and alerting the community to her arrival. I was able to find a church willing to support Suong by collecting clothes, finding people to tutor her in English, and locating other teen-agers at the high school who would take time to help her adjust. As questions developed, I would speak with a social worker at a voluntary agency. However, I learned much on my own, especially the importance of my role as Suong's special friend. That was the most basic function I provided as a sponsor.

Suong found adjustment to life without family and without other Vietnamese difficult. Her depression was the most demanding aspect of sponsorship I faced. On the other hand, her rapid progress with English kept me busy finding appropriate tutors and new Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

In return for my efforts, I have experienced the joy of seeing her become more independent each month. She just graduated from high school, not with honors but with praise from her teacher for her efforts. She is going on to study electronics in a two-year technical program.

Others whom I knew in Thailand and have remained in close contact with in the US are also moving forward. Vinh, who arrived in the US two years ago without any knowledge of English, is graduating from high school this month with honors. She will be attending college this fall where she hopes to pursue a career in architecture.

Every day more Indochinese refugees disembark from planes across the US. They are looking for a peaceful existence and acceptance by the American people. Adolescent women are especially in need of love and support. As Suong once said, ''Just one American friend is enough for any Vietnamese refugee.''

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