Western and Eastern refugees help each other adjust to US

They are tall and sometimes bearded, with something distinctly European in their bearing. The men in leather jackets have the hands of carpenters, plumbers , and truck drivers. On their lapels they wear the familiar ''Solidarity'' buttons.

In the last year 12 Polish newcomers in three families have joined some 500 Vietnamese refugees already in Lawrence, a historic Merrimack River industrial city 30 miles north of Boston. New arrivals with names like Borowiecki and Uszewski study English with other refugees named Truang, Van, and Nguyen.

In Lawrence classrooms where English is taught, a kind of mini ''melting pot'' takes place. The informal joking and sometimes raucous laughter of the Poles seems to blend easily with the polite deference of Indochinese.

But the contrast is clear.

''The Poles are obviously Western. They say what they mean. The Indochinese are quiet and will try to accept almost anything without complaint, even when they are welcomed to say what they mean,'' comments one refugee worker here.

In English classes run by the International Institute of Greater Lawrence, Poles and Vietnamese join together to repeat their lessons and answer the language drills posed by teacher Dunn. When the grammar gets tough, both groups seem to work together - falling back upon jokes and a sense of humor to smooth the embarrassment of an error.

''In the classroom together they learn from each other that in the language problems they are having, they are not alone,'' says teacher Dunn.

These three Polish families are among some 1,500 Poles who from October 1982 to September 1983 entered the United States under a special provision that allows dissident Poles a kind of ''orderly departure'' to the United States.

Under this provision, Poles who wish to enter the US as refugees after release from political imprisonment in Poland have been flown directly from Poland to the United States. Usually refugees are only accepted after they have left their own country and are living in a third country.

Some 5,600 Polish refugees entered the US in fiscal year 1983 (October 1982 to September 1983). With the exception of the more than 1,500 accepted by the US under orderly departure, most entered from Western Europe since the imposition of martial law in December 1981. A total of 15,000 Polish refugees have resettled in the US since that time.

The tiny trickle that has made its way to Lawrence is likely to remain tiny, according to Kathy Rodgers, executive director of the International Institute of Greater Lawrence, an agency using federal, state, and local funds to help refugees with language training, and job settlement.

She points out that arrivals next year will be largely limited to cases in which families are being reunited, because the Lawrence economy is unable to provide jobs for a greater influx.

So it would seem the Poles will pose little competition to the hundreds of Indochinese refugees who have already arrived in this heavily working-class city of 60,000.

It is too early to have placed any of the Poles in jobs, notes Mrs. Rodgers. She says that 50 percent of Vietnamese refugees are usually placed within 90 days, after they enter language and job-placement programs.

As for relations with the wider population, the Poles have been received almost as heroes - especially by the city's ethnic Polish community, Mrs. Rodgers says. Polish Americans already living in this city perhaps best known for its 19th-century textile mills have pitched in to rent to or donate housing for the three new families, she adds.

According to a State Department spokesman, the nation - as well as Lawrence - is likely to see a reduction in the annual number of arriving Polish refugees. The bulk of the Solidarity detainees who might be eligible for orderly departure has already left, he says.

Still, there has been some concern that reduction of refugee quotas governing Eastern Europe from 15,000 in fiscal 1983 to 12,000 for fiscal 1984 (October 1983 to September 1984) may foster a competition for scarce slots between Polish refugees and Jews seeking to leave the Soviet Union. (Both groups of refugees come under the Eastern Europe refugee quota.)

In recent congressional hearings on these annual quotas, spokesmen for groups concerned with Soviet Jewish refugees called for sufficient flexibility to prevent one group from being penalized to help the other. But according to the State Department the 12,000 quota should be sufficient because the number of Soviet Jewish refugees has now sunk to the lowest level since the 1970s, with less than 1,500 leaving the Soviet Union in the last year.

As for more immediate problems, teacher Betty Dunn leads a class of both Poles and Vietnamese.

''Do you expect to begin a job at $20 an hour?'' she asks a Mr. Wang, amid chuckles from the class.

''No, maybe $3.75,'' Wang returns, with a somber note of realism.

She asks Richard Borowiecki: ''When a possible employer asks you during an interview, 'Are you willing to go anywhere to work on the job?' What do you answer?''

''Yes, maybe anywhere in Massachusetts . . . or maybe anywhere in America,'' he answers with a laugh.

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