Refugees are a phone call away from a new life

March 19, 2006

Posted on Fri, Dec. 30, 2005

Refugees are a phone call away from a new life

By DAVID HALDANE
Los Angeles Times

MANILA, Philippines — Hanh Luong and her two young sons spend their time huddled next to a packed suitcase with their cellphone nearby.

For more than two months they have lived in a small dank room that a refugee organization leased in one of the poorest sections of the Philippine capital, awaiting a call they know will soon come.

Luong, who is Vietnamese, says she doesn’t mind the long hours of boredom sitting on the hard floor. Her family shares the room with seven others, who also use the same hot plate and toilet, but she doesn’t mind that either. For at the end of that coveted phone call, she says, lies fulfillment of a powerful dream: Escape, after 16 years in the Philippines, to a new life in the United States.

“I’m just happy that my family has a future,” says Luong, 48, who will join a sister in El Monte, Calif. “Whatever job is offered me, I will take it, even if it’s washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom.”

Luong and hundreds of her compatriots in the Philippines constitute the last group of unsettled Vietnamese refugees. Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, most of them are at last proceeding to hopeful futures in the United States.

The less fortunate talk of suicide and weep over being left behind. Goodbyes are bittersweet.

“I feel lonely when I send some of my friends to the airport, because I don’t know when I will see them again,” Luong says.

Resettlement became possible only after American and Philippine officials hammered out an agreement last year. Until 1989, anyone escaping Vietnam was classified a political refugee.

Since then, however, the international community has screened refugees to determine whether they left for economic reasons, a finding that often bars them from legal immigration.

Having left their country about the time the policy changed, the Vietnamese still in the Philippines, many of them among the last who escaped their homeland by sea, have been living a stateless existence.

Unwanted by other countries and unable to own businesses, buy homes or hold most jobs, most have eked out sparse livings as illegal street vendors.

Many initially lived in a refugee camp on Palawan, a remote island about 360 miles southwest of Manila. In 1996, the camp was closed and the Philippine government, under U.N. supervision, began returning them to Vietnam.

Some refugees responded by attempting suicide, community workers say, and others rioted at the airport. Finally, after human rights groups and the Philippine Catholic Church intervened, the repatriation was halted.

Under the revised resettlement program, the first 229 displaced refugees left for the United States in September. By March, an estimated 1,600 are expected to have made the trip.

Nearly 500 refugees have been barred from immigrating because they married Filipinos who cannot legally accompany them under the program, or because they allegedly misrepresented their cases.

Among them is Hue Thi Le, 45. With her husband and six children, she lives in a small two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from Luong’s tiny room. Fourteen years ago, she says, desperate to leave Vietnam after the last of her Catholic-missionary husband’s stints in a communist prison, the family told a lie.

For years, her family had cared for the child of an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, she says. Such children are given special immigration status by the U.S. government. In their haste to escape, she says, the family falsely claimed the child as a relative. The child has since immigrated to America, but U.S. officials denied the family’s request to follow.

“I see nothing but pitch darkness,” Le says. “I’d commit suicide if it weren’t for my children and religion.”

Philippine officials did not respond to requests for comment about the refugee situation.

Similar stories of anticipation and dejection are heard on the island of Palawan. After the camp closed in 1996, at least 400 refugees were moved 10 miles to a site called “Vietville” that the Catholic Church built. Today about 40 remain, living in two-room huts made of concrete and bamboo.

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