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Refugees

Leaving Laos

Large numbers of villagers were displaced from their homes during the second Indochina War (1954-1975). Many fled to escape the heavy American bombing or were forced to relocate by one side or the other in the civil war going on in Laos. By the end of the war, an estimated 25% of the population had been displaced from their homes to the cities, refugee camps in the country, or even to North Vietnam, where the bombing was less intense.

The first wave of refugees from the country began with the communist takeover in 1975. First to leave were officials of the former Royal Lao Government and the westernized elite. Many of these people had a French language education and were accepted by France or had cooperated with the U.S. and were offered asylum here. Ordinary villagers had no plans to leave, but as communist control tightened, arrests of relatively low ranking soldiers began to increase. Many farmers had enlisted to get some training and avoid the draft, as draftees were usually sent to the front. News of the harsh conditions and deaths in the "seminars," the prison camps where "re-education" was to take place, began to filter out. Farmers were pushed into cooperatives and paid according to work points, but political attitude affected work points, and, by definition, anyone affiliated with the Royal Lao Army had a bad political attitude and hence little payment in rice. Bad weather and government mismanagement of agriculture led to bad harvests. Unable to get enough to feed their children and fearing further discrimination and possible arrest, ordinary villagers who had been soldiers in the Royal Lao Army began to leave with their families in large numbers from 1977 to 1979. Many were caught, arrested, and imprisoned; others were shot trying to swim across the Mekong River to Thailand.

Children with a "bad" class background were often refused education beyond primary school. Hundreds of teenagers decided on their own to leave, disappearing often without a word to their families. They hoped for resettlement and a chance for further education in the West.

The Hmong, a fiercely independent upland people, many of whom were allied with the U.S. war effort, also left in significant numbers. Forced relocation and bombing of Hmong areas by the new government led to a steady trickle of refugees that eventually reached about 150,000.

The village refugees often lived in Thai refugee camps for years before the U.S. began to accept significant numbers of Laotians starting around 1979. The camps were crowded and unsanitary, and many U.N. supplies disappeared into the hands of the Thai military who supervised the camps. Hunger was common. The enforced idleness month after month and year after year as well as uncertainty about their future weighed heavily on the refugees. The camps housing the ethnic Lao were gradually emptied, with most refugees coming to the U.S. France, Canada, and Australia also took thousands of Laotian refugees.

The Hmong faced somewhat different circumstances. The Thai government was less friendly toward this ethnic group and sometimes refused them admission as refugees. The Hmong had fought as irregulars - armed, supplied, and paid by the C.I.A. However, they lacked documentation and found it harder to meet U.S. criteria for refugee status. Some Hmong were polygamous, but the U.S. would accept only one wife and her children. Hmong families form close-knit clan groups, and some Hmong turned down immigration to the U.S. if it meant leaving behind relatives who were refused admission. The Hmong were illiterate mountain people and had trouble adapting to the U.S. Many were resettled in urban environments where they felt utterly lost. The U.S. accepted tens of thousands of Hmong but refused to accept the several thousand Hmong remaining in the Thai camps. The Thai government is insisting the camps be closed and forced repatriation is taking place, a process the Thai government hopes to complete in 1996.

Lao Refugees in America

Adaptation to the U.S. has been somewhat difficult for the Lao. They had little or no education, few skills, and no background in English. The U.S. was confusing, far removed from subsistence rice farming. Electricity, flush toilets, American housing in general were all strange. Even on a welfare budget, they were living like a solid middle class family in Laos and found it quite comfortable. Compared to their neighbors, the Vietnamese and Chinese, who have a strong work ethic, the Lao have a fun ethic. They can and do work hard if need be, but they believe life should be enjoyed. They were used to being rather flexible with regard to time. Adapting to modern industrial requirements has been difficult and often has involved a succession of jobs.

The Lao tend to be personable and sociable, and they have a good sense of humor. They prefer to avoid confrontation and admire people with self-control. However, many men like to drink, and brawls are not uncommon among the inebriated.

There tends to be a big generation gap between parents and their children who have grown up here. Lao women were often illiterate while the men usually had a fifth or sixth grade education at best. Few have become really fluent in English. Their children grow up watching TV, playing with native-born Americans, and speaking to each other in English. The children may speak a little Lao with their parents, but usually they can't read or write the language and feel more at home in English, often responding to their parents in English. Parents may have limited understanding of U.S. institutions. They tend to avoid dealing with the schools or other institutions where they are embarrassed by their limited English and understanding. They generally cannot read messages sent home from school. They can't help their children with their homework. They are unlikely to have many books or to subscribe to newspapers or magazines.

In a Lao home one might find the TV blaring and several conversations going on at once, a scene of noise and confusion to the average middle-class American. Children may set their own bedtimes, eat at will, and make decisions on their own that American parents would make for their children. Because the Lao children know more English and can read the language, they may try to manipulate their parents and say, for example, that the school demands they get new sneakers for gym, leaving the parents wanting to meet school requirements but suspicious the child is putting something over on them.

Having so little education themselves, some Lao parents are not too upset if a child drops out of high school, since he already has far exceeded his parents' education. While they want their children to study, they are much more likely to allow the child to make this decision on his own. Lao students rarely come close to the stereotype of the over-achieving Asian-American child who is driven and obsessed with education.