Warm welcomes for forgotten allies

JULIA BENNETT March 23 1987

Warm welcomes for forgotten allies

JULIA BENNETT March 23 1987

Warm welcomes for forgotten allies


It is Sunday morning in Greensboro, N.C., and the rain spattering against the modern stained-glass windows of the First Lutheran Church is about as close to winter as North Carolina gets. In one pew, Rmah Dock and five fellow Vietnamese Montagnards, all neatly dressed in donated sports jackets, stand among the genteel parishioners in their Sunday best. They hesitantly mouth the words from their hymnbooks—like most Southeast Asian refugees newly arrived in America, their knowledge of English is limited. Members of the white middle-class congregation that has sponsored their resettlement in the United States smile encouragingly. And behind the smiles lies evident warmth—and an appreciation of the refugees’ special past.

In an America still at odds with its troubled involvement in Vietnam, the resettlement of Rmah Dock, 45, and 208 fellow Montagnard refugees in North Carolina last November unleashed a flood of emotion. The Montagnards, a 200,000-strong Vietnamese minority group, lived in the mountainous interior of the country and were in fact 29 culturally diverse tribes.

Still, during the Vietnam War many shared a common bond: about 45,000 fought alongside U.S. Special Forces troops—Green Berets— and were regarded as among the best soldiers in Vietnam. “My life was saved on more than one occasion by those guys,” recalled U.S. veteran Robert Rheault. “Leaving them behind was the toughest part of pulling out.” But after the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, the Montagnards’ fate became unclear—until 1985, when Don Scott, who spent six years in Vietnam during the war as a civilian aid worker, discovered some tribesmen in a Southeast Asian displaced persons’ camp. Because of his campaign, the refugees— many of whom left families in Viet-

nam—are now living in North Carolina and adapting to a society that is centuries removed from their primitive life in the mountains.

In November, 1985, Scott received word through wartime contacts of the whereabouts of his former interpreter, Ha-Doi. The Montagnard was rumored to be living at a displaced persons’ camp on the Thailand-Cambodia bor-

der. The following month Scott, a realestate investor, travelled to the area from his home in Maine. Scott recalled that after spending two hours in the vast camp, “I thought I saw a Montagnard woman —she yelled something and all of a sudden there was my interpreter and 200 other Montagnards crowded around me. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.

We talked all day.”

The refugees gave him painful details of the Montagnards’ fate after the fall of Vietnam. Many attempted to hide their past and live quietly under the

new Communist regime. Others, including those who eventually went to North Carolina, were branded as American allies, and they decided to fight for independence by waging guerrilla war against the North Vietnamese. By the late 1970s, their numbers greatly reduced, many survivors formed groups that attempted to flee through neighboring Cambodia to safety in Thailand.

It was a dangerous journey that few survived. Until 1978 Cambodia was in the grip of the Khmer Rouge regime, under which as many as three million people died. And in 1978 North Vietnamese troops invaded the country, turning it into a battlefield. Said refugee Y-Pat Buonya, 40: “We had nothing. We could not stay in one place or we would be killed. We just ran and ran.”

Scott returned home and, calling on wartime friends, launched a drive to bring the 209 refugees to the United States. A modest letterwriting campaign to persuade the U.S. state department to ease the Montagnards’ resettlement quickly blossomed into thousands of letters and phone calls from former soldiers.

For some veterans the campaign provided an outlet for coming to terms with their war experience. For others it was a simple issue of loyalty: about 25,000 Montagnards and thou-

sands more villagers died in the war against the North Vietnamese. After approving the Montagnards’ immigration late last spring, the state department asked Scott to help choose a coordinating agency. Scott decided on North Carolina’s Lutheran Family Services, a multidenominational organization that in turn found churches and families to sponsor the refugees. The result was the arrival on Nov. 25 of the Montagnards to a big-band welcome at the Greensboro airport.

Since their arrival the Montagnards have been resettled in North Caroli-

na’s three major cities: Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. Rmah Dock lives with 15 fellow Montagnards in a rambling yellow house that was volunteered by its owner, Michael Lannane, a Special Forces veteran. The heartshaped rattan welcome mat on the wooden verandah and the curling map of the United States on the hallway wall, like everything else in the house, were donated by Greensboro citizens.

Dock, who did not fight but served as tribal liaison with the South Vietnamese government, has played a key role in the resettlement—partly a re-

sult of his superior grasp of English. Now working for the Lutheran Family Services, he is helping his companions to find work, learn the language and cope with life in the United States.

Like Dock, Y-Pat Buonya in Raleigh, 115 km from Greensboro, also speaks English. But Buonya learned the language from American soldiers. At 17 he began fighting for the Special Forces, and by the time of Saigon’s fall he had become a first lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army. Buonya says that after the fall he, like thousands of other Montagnard soldiers, became a guerrilla, fighting the North Vietnamese until making his way into Cambodia in 1982. Forced by a detachment of Khmer Rouge soldiers to live in a heavily guarded encampment, he performed manual labor—including planting land mines—before the group escaped after the soldiers fled in the face of a Vietnamese army attack.

Buonya now lives in a renovated three-storey house with his wife, Hblin Nay, another man and another refugee couple with a baby. They share the huge house with their sponsoring family—Raleigh lawyer Joyce Davis, 37, and her husband and two young children. Sitting in the living room with its burnished hardwood floors, Buonya emphasized the contrast between their new life and the hardship of the jungle. Often, he said, he and his starving friends were forced to dig up a poisonous root that had to be cooked for several days before the toxins dissipated enough to make the vegetable edible.

The move to the United States has guaranteed the Montagnard group’s survival, but the refugees still face formidable obstacles. Although 140 of the 146 Montagnard men have found work, few have so far acquired more than a rudimentary command of English—a severe handicap. And there are always the haunting memories: Dock, like many of his male compatriots, left a wife and children in his native village and has heard nothing about them for 11 years.

As well, the fiercely independent Montagnards face the problem of maintaining their cultural identity. Because of their small number they cannot count on the support that larger immigrant communities give to 9 new arrivals. And among Ü the 209 are members of five distinct tribes that, in their native land, were separated not only by distance but also by language and customs.

But there are indications that they are already forging a new—and unified—identity. Even before their arrival in North Carolina the group rejected the term Montagnard—mountain people—given to them during France’s colonial rule over Vietnam from 1883 to 1954. Instead, they call themselves Dega, or first people —a reference to their claim that they were the original inhabitants of Vietnam’s lowlands before the Vietnamese migrated south from China and displaced them 2,000 years ago. “This is a fairly unique group, and I think they will be able to maintain their identity here,” said Raleigh Bailey, director of the Lutheran Family Services refugee program. “If they can’t, no one can.”

JULIA BENNETT in Greensboro