Southeast Asians in Boston make adjustment with a little help

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.

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.''

Then, with the invasion by Vietnam and a famine, many people fled through the jungle to refugee camps in Thailand, he says. ''So, you see, the concept of political organization was eroded. Now the people need a rehabilitation period before they can get involved.''

Although signs of political activism in the refugee communities are few, they may become more visible during the next three years - thanks to a state program designed to teach refugee leaders how to help their people.

During the past two months, the 40 trainees have interviewed thousands of expatriates to identify the needs of each refugee community, such as more English classes and job training, says David Lescohier of the Massachusetts Office of Refugee Resettlement. Then they determine the resources - such as the social-service system, grants from private foundations, and fund-raisers - that are available to meet those needs.

The goal is to teach these organizations how to survive after their start-up money is gone. ''After 36 months, they're on their own. We want them to develop their network so they will not continue to be at the bottom - in the worst housing, in the worst jobs - where everyone starts,'' Mr. Lescohier says.

cc16p6 One of the refugees' most urgent needs is safe, affordable housing, say officials and volunteers. Because rents here are high, and because refugees initially live on welfare or have low-paying jobs, it's common for the newcomers to double up to meet expenses.

But the result can be overcrowding, bad relations with landlords, and, sometimes, resentment by neighbors. In some neighborhoods where refugees are concentrated - Dorchester, Brighton, Revere - the resentment, coupled with racial prejudice, has exploded into violence directed at Southeast Asian refugees.

The violence has ''run the gamut from minor kinds of crime that have a chilling effect on their right to live there (name-calling and intimidation) to arson and more serious assaults,'' says Chuck Wexler, director of the community disorders unit of the Boston Police Department.

As the number of refugees in Boston has increased, so, too, has the number of reported incidents. But Mr. Wexler says that the refugees, who were initially reluctant to talk with police, are now more willing to report such harassment. The community disorders unit, which investigates incidents with racial overtones , has begun to overcome the refugees' reticence by hiring two Vietnamese inter-preters and by distributing the unit's phone number in refugee communities , he says.

Massachusetts Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti has vigorously pursued these cases, obtaining restraining orders against the perpetrators and bringing criminal charges against the more serious offenders.

Still, harassment and violence are major concerns for many refugees. The Cambodian community, for example, wants to find a safe, permanent location for its Buddhist temple. The refugees have raised more than $25,000 to buy a hall or land where they can build, but they have rejected at least one site because they didn't feel comfortable in the area.

''We don't like to interrupt our neighbor,'' says Som Sunna, referring to the problem of tight street parking for the existing temple. ''We look for a neighborhood where they know love for a lot of people.''

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