Listen: Vietnamese refugees

MPR’s Kate Williams reports on the success and challenges of Minnesota program for arriving Vietnamese refugees. Topics include housing, education, and jobs.


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KATE WILLIAMS: Minnesota has gained a reputation for having one of the most successful Vietnamese-refugee resettlements in the nation. The fact that nearly 4,000 Vietnamese people have made their homes here with less problems than in other states was cause enough for Washington to send two investigators here this past week to find out why. The new immigrants are having much the same problems as many Americans had when they came to America-- Learning English, finding housing, finding jobs, and fighting loneliness.

Stan Breen, Governor's Office; Archie Lang, Washington Investigator; and Ton That Thien, Vietnamese refugee; all agree that the success of the Minnesota Program can be attributed to the private and volunteer sectors of the community, and the warmth of Minnesota's people. But the key to every successful program is money. And there seems to be some question as to where the money should come from.

Thus far, $305 million were allocated to bring the refugees to the US, get them settled in camps, and feed them. $100 million went to health, education, and welfare for social services and education. Breen, coordinator of the Minnesota Indochinese Resettlement Program, is concerned about what will happen to the program once the federal money is gone.

STAN BREEN: I think the United States Federal Government made a lot of mistakes in this problem that I'm very concerned about. They appropriated money only for nine months. That isn't enough. A refugee problem has got to go two, three years. It's not the state responsibility to use our tax dollars for their problems. But rather, it's the overall, the Federal Government was the one that was in Vietnam. They're the ones that brought these people over. They've got to give us additional social service, education, vocational-training funds so we can take care of the problem. I don't see this as a Minnesota problem. I see it as an American problem with the Federal Government having primary responsibility

TON THAT THIEN: I think that the State of Minnesota should have its own program of resettling the refugees. They shouldn't rely on the Federal Government. I don't think the Federal Government at this point in time is so weak. That conflict between the president and the Congress, they are not doing anything. And the refugees that came into Minnesota or have chosen Minnesota as their second home, it means that the state can do some things to help them out.

KATE WILLIAMS: Ton That Thien, Vietnamese refugee and graduate of the University of Minnesota. Breen said, what sets Minnesota apart from the other states is that Minnesota stresses language development more than jobs. Breen doesn't want to see the Vietnamese take jobs that they might lose in two months because of a language barrier. Thien is in agreement with Breen.

TON THAT THIEN: What we should do is to provide enough English classes, enough funds for vocational training, and to make sure that in the future they would be able to take a job, a good job to enable them to make a living, and to feel Americans. But if they keep on going like that, on working on menial jobs like janitors, laundrymen, dishwashers, then, what could you see? In three years from now, they will end up in the welfare payroll. And it costs the state more than anything else.

KATE WILLIAMS: Ton does not want to see his people be second-class citizens for too long. He is concerned that the sponsors are forcing the refugees to take jobs too soon, and in some cases, get them on to welfare right away. He says he knows that there is pressure on the sponsor to financially and emotionally support the refugees, and that is why the money is quickly needed. The Vietnamese did not come here to seek fortunes, he said. They came here to survive, and they want to be independent. So far, the state hasn't given us a dime, Ton said.

Before the Federal Government sent Minnesota a grant for its Resettlement Program, Ton said he nor any of the refugees had heard from Minnesota Governor Anderson. I'm disappointed in his insensitivity, Ton added. I asked Lang, Ton, and Breen how they thought the minorities and blue collar workers of Minnesota are going to react to a new group of people taking jobs that might otherwise be theirs. Lang said he hasn't heard of any negative reactions as yet.

ARCHIE LANG: Does it really make sense to react sharply against another group, which is in much the same circumstances as you are. It just happens that for this moment, this exact moment in time, there's an emotional climate, which is more favorable to them than to you. But tomorrow, they're going to be in exactly the same situation. Now the question is, we have a commonality of problems and concerns. And maybe, we ought really to be thinking in terms of how are we going to get together and work out those problems so that they injure all of us least.

TON THAT THIEN: The Chicano, the Blacks fighting for minority interests is something that is always tough. But right now, you have the Indian Movements. We have the [? NCAP ?] and all these movements going on. I don't want to see that kind of things happening for the Vietnamese where there will be a Vietnamese refugees movements civil liberties and everything. But we can avoid it. We can avoid it.

STAN BREEN: I don't want to give the impression that everything is wonderful and everything's going to continue to be wonderful, and there are no problems. Certainly, there are some blue collar workers, there are going to be some underemployed people themselves, and some minority groups that may resent these people coming in and getting jobs. But I think we have solutions to this, if the Federal Government will help us. We had a bill that didn't pass-- we hope it 'll pass this session-- on bilingual education. That bilingual education will not only be for Chicanos, not only be for other cultural groups, Spanish surname, but it will also be for Vietnamese or Cambodian.

KATE WILLIAMS: Archie Lang, Ton That Thien and Stan Breen. The Minnesota picture looks rosy because the Vietnamese people cannot respond, Thien said. They can't speak English, and they are afraid to speak out because they are still dependent upon their sponsors or churches. I'm Kate Williams.


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