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The Welcome House of Alexandria: An Experiment in Refugee Resettlement

After the three countries of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) fell to the Communists at the end of April 1975, 130,000 Indochinese refugees were allowed to enter the U.S. under a special status that provided for relocation aid and financial assistance for them. This was the first wave of many more Southeast Asian refugees who would resettle in the U.S.

After Communist governments were established in these three countries, hundreds of thousands people started to run for their lives. They comprised Cambodians (fleeing the Khmer Rouge); Lao, including highland people (fleeing on foot to Thailand); and Vietnamese (taking to boats to reach the shores of Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and going as far as Hong Kong, which became their places of first asylum. This was the second wave, beginning in 1978.

Hundreds of thousands of those who fled never made it, dying on their cross-country journey or perishing at sea. Of the number who arrived in first asylum camps, many were repatriated to their countries, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Some 2.5 million, however, were resettled in other countries -- mostly in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and China.

The original group of 130,000 were principally South Vietnamese government officials, military officers and business people, mostly well-educated and often skilled. By 1978, they had largely achieved self-sufficiency in the U.S. But the post-1978 refugees, who had come in large part from farms and fishing villages, were less acclimated to urban living and faced steeper challenges.

By July of 1980, more than 382,000 Indochinese refugees had been resettled in the U.S., a third of whom were in California. About 20,000 chose the Washington area, especially Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia, as their homes.

To cater to the staff of the then-South Vietnamese Embassy, a Vietnamese couple had opened a grocery store in the early 1960s on Wilson Blvd in Arlington. Little by little, the first wave of refugees flocked to Arlington, and opened a string of restaurants, supermarkets, fabric stores, and other shops.

The refugees’ initial resettlement was handled by nine Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGS), contracted to the Department of State. They gave the refugees seed money of $300 to $500 per person to get them going. After finding U.S.-resident sponsors for the refugees, the volags also provided help with food, lodging, medical and education needs, counseling, training and job placement. The sponsors’ responsibilities included applying for public assistance, enrolling people in vocational training, finding jobs, and getting refugee children into schools.

Most boat refugees, whether adults or children, faced immediate problems, including lack of English skills, and some were illiterate in their own language. In their own countries, they were often malnourished, and practiced poor hygiene. Most had skin rash, TB, and stomach and intestinal ailments. Many suffered from mental disorders, not surprising in people who had often been caught and jailed for trying to flee their countries, attacked on the sea by Thai pirates, and, sometimes, mistreated in refugee camps.

Most had come from rural areas and had been stuck, sometimes for years, in camps in Southeast Asia that offered little schooling or training and only rudimentary health care. Western standards were new to them.

Furthermore, state and local governments were often unprepared to help the refugees, lacking sufficient financial and human resources. Fairfax and Arlington counties were better equipped to provide services; Alexandria, less so.

In 1978, I was among the first six recipients (Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese) of a federal grant allowing our group to study – with the help of an American psychologist and a Vietnamese psychiatrist -- the physical and mental issues that newly-arrived refugees encountered. Afterwards, we were sent to different agencies to intern, then to work permanently. I myself interned at Northern Virginia Family Services, a counseling agency, for three months.

Then, in early 1979, I was hired by the Fairfax County Department of Social Services (FX - DSS) as a Case-Management worker, helping Indochinese refugees who were flocking to Virginia. After six months in a job that I liked, my supervisor said that there were refugee families wandering the streets of Alexandria; church volunteers had tried to help them, but couldn’t speak the language. They asked whether someone would like to go there and assist.

I had already volunteered to interpret for large refugee families who had been evicted from their apartments in Arlington and Fairfax, and had seen that the primary problem was lack of adequate housing for boat refugee families of more than six members. Now, I went to the Alexandria Department of Social Services on N. Royal St. (moved subsequently to Mt Vernon Ave.), and asked whether they had a job tailored to help the refugees in their city. Unfortunately, there was no budget for such a position.

To fill the gap, in mid-1979 I established the Indochinese Social Services (IRSS), a non-profit organization, with the support of a group of officials from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and other Vietnamese and Chinese friends. I started looking for houses for rent for evicted families, but it was not easy. Virginia homeowners were reluctant to rent to large families, especially penniless refugees on welfare.

Fortunately, I met at a party an American Navy captain who had served in Vietnam during the war. Television news was full of traumatic stories of refugees in the camps of Southeast Asia and on the streets of America, and he asked if he could be of help. I told him of my desperate attempts to find a house for our refugees, and he kindly offered a small townhouse he had just bought as an investment. He would rent it at $350 a month, half the going rate.

I set up shop in that house, located at 3302 Landover St. in the Arlandria area of Alexandria. Our Board of Directors decided that we would charge $2.00 a day for room and board for each family, while I worked on getting them their refugee benefits, taking them to doctors and hospitals, securing vocational-training opportunities, and placing them in jobs so they could move out and find their own quarters.

Two illiterate Vietnamese farmers, husband and wife, were my first clients, sent to the Welcome House by the Fairfax DSS. I offered to waive their rent provided they help me paint the run-down house and remove the wild plants in the front and back. I bought paint, brushes, and tools, and showed them how to clean up the three bedrooms on the second floor, the living and kitchen areas on the first floor, and the dark basement. The three of us worked very hard for two weeks, and the house was ready for business.

I volunteered to work there daily and started to get calls from different government and private agencies that needed places to put evicted refugee families. The Welcome House could accommodate six people in the three bedrooms on the second floor, and five in the basement, which had two queen-size beds and a single bed. My office and a reception area were on the ground floor. Adjacent was a small kitchen, where all of us cooked.

The Welcome House started servicing two to three families and various single people, who stayed a month or two before rotating out. All had to learn survival skills, including how to cook on electric burners that they had never seen before. I showed them how to sit properly on a toilet seat -- not squatting with their feet on top of it; and how to bathe inside the tub – not standing outside, pouring water on their heads with a big plastic container, and flooding the bathroom.

I told them that, in winter, they had to know how to make and tidy their beds, and not to fold their sheets and blankets every morning, which was their practice. I went to the Grace Episcopal Church nearby to get canned food and clothes for them, and took them to the grocery store for them to buy food by themselves.

As more refugees were sent by the voluntary agencies in Washington to Alexandria, I became overloaded. Fortunately, the Director of the Alexandria Social Services allowed IRSS to contract the units of services I provided to the refugees. So I hired two more staff, and IRSS added a second program dealing with social services activities.

By this time, the Department of Health and Human Resources (HHR) of the federal government had funds to transfer to the states to finance projects to assist refugees. With the help of my Board, I wrote a proposal to get state funds for vocational training. This was the third IRSS project. I rented an office on the second floor of a flat at the corner of Del Ray St and Vermont Ave., and hired Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese staff to drive the refugees to the local agencies to get them social welfare and Medicaid. The staff also took them to the hospitals to get health care services, and enrolled them in schools or in existing vocational training.

As for work, the two jobs most on offer for the refugees were house-cleaning and gardening. I engaged two people to train refugees in this work, and found jobs for them on week-ends.

I also partnered with the Department of Employment and placed a number of refugees at a poultry factory, a welding factory, and at the newly-built Hyatt hotel on Route 1, near National (now Reagan) airport. I rented apartments and houses for them in the surrounding area.

In the mid-1990s, a Vietnamese restaurant opened on King St, a few blocks from the Alexandria City Hall. It did very well, but closed after the Chef/owner had a car accident. There was little business in Alexandria because most refugees by that time had moved to either Arlington or Fairfax, and there was a strip of Vietnamese businesses on Wilson Blvd in Arlington.

In 1980, an incident dramatized the need for more English-language instruction. At one of the schools in Falls Church, a 10-year old Cambodian girl got locked in a bathroom cubicle. She could not speak English, and was embarrassed to cry for help. She was eventually found there distraught and traumatized after school had ended. She had been crying for hours until one of the school cleaning staff came to her rescue.

I was asked by that school to help write a proposal to provide bi-lingual tutoring in English, math and social science to boat refugee children after school hours. IRSS won a grant in 1980 from the Department of Education for that project. Ten college students, fluent in Cambodian, Chinese, Laotian, and Vietnamese, were hired on a part-time basis to tutor about a hundred students.

This became the fourth IRSS program. By then, I was the Executive Director, supervising four managers: a manager for the Welcome House, a second for the Social Services program, a third for Vocational Training, and a fourth manager for the bi-lingual training project.

After three years supervising these four projects, and seeing that more Vietnamese organizations were receiving federal and state funds to provide the same services that I had initiated in Alexandria, I decided that I needed a break and closed down IRSS. The Welcome House then reverted to a battered woman and two young children who had been our clients. I had found the woman a job as a cook in a restaurant, and she and her children rented the house for two years after I left. The staff of our other projects also found good jobs in the Washington area.

For my work, several members of our Board nominated me for a U.S.-Asia Institute award as one of the ten Outstanding Asian Americans in the United States, in the field of Social Services. The ceremony took place at the Hyatt hotel in Washington D.C. in 1981. I felt privileged that I had been able with my work to repay the Vietnamese and American communities for the way they had assisted me when I came to America in 1975 as a refugee widow with three young children and $20 in my pocket.

After my involvement with IRSS and the Welcome House, and after my three children had gone away to college, I followed suit and enrolled in 1982 at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in DC to study International Relations. I graduated in 1984 with an MS degree, and then accompanied my husband, a U.S. diplomat, to Bangkok, Mexico City, Trinidad, Jamaica and Brazil.

More about my refugee work can be found in my book – Autumn Cloud, From a Vietnamese Widow to an American Activist – @ Amazon.com

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