Montagnard Refugees Struggle with Their New Lives in Canada

Vancouver, Canada – Siu Hbeng beamed as she showed off her new home. She circled the narrow, sparsely furnished bedroom she shares with her husband, then poked her head into the adjacent room and pointed to the beds inside.

“One, one,” she said in English, indicating that two other refugees slept there. Unable to communicate further in the foreign language, Siu Hbeng laughed and shook her head. “No English,” she said, apologetically.

Continuing her tour of the two-level house, Siu Hbeng led the way through an empty, yellowing kitchen and descended into a damp, carpeted basement smelling faintly of mildew and stale cigarette smoke. Four other refugees share the two rooms below.

“One, one,” Siu Hbeng said, pointing to two sunken beds in one room. “One, one,” she said of the other.

After a long and arduous journey from their native land, Siu Hbeng, 32, and her housemates-all of them Montagnard refugees from Vietnam‘s restive Central Highlands-are starting their lives anew at this rental home on Bonaccord Drive, a tree-lined residential street in southeast Vancouver.

Fleeing from religious persecution, the group had endured months of hiding along the Cambodian border before the UN High Commissioner for Refugees escorted them to Phnom Penh.

They arrived in Canada from Phnom Penh on June 22, 2004 and are the first group of Montagnards to be resettled in Canada by the UNHCR.

At least 30 more Montagnards currently in Phnom Penh are expected to be flown to Vancouver in October, according to Monica Tran, the assistant manager of Welcome House, a shelter for newly arrived immigrants and refugees run by the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia.

For the first two weeks after they arrived, the group of eight-Siu Hbeng, the sole woman among the group; her husband Rocam Phang, 33; Ksor Anglok, 50; Kpa Bum, 45; Rahlan Yiek, 50; Y Klo, 43; Kpa Hin, 32; and the youngest, Dieu Lanh, 24-stayed at Welcome House.

In July, they moved in together to the Bonaccord house, which they found with the help of members of Vancouver’s Vietnamese Alliance Church.

Judging from the group’s scant belongings, however, they could not have had much to move.

With the exception of a mismatched set of government-issued sofas, several used electrical appliances and furniture items and some plastic shopping bags filled with donated clothing, the group appeared to have few material possessions and even fewer remnants from Vietnam.

Kpa Bum wore a plastic, digital Casio watch on his left wrist. Held together by bits of red yarn, the watch was the only thing he had that survived his arduous trek across the Cambodia-Vietnam border into Ratanakkiri province.

Siu Hbeng had only a fuzzy, pink sweater, given to her by her sister before she fled her home village. And Rahlan Yiek managed to keep a crushed identity card, issued to him by the Vietnamese government.

None of them had photos or other mementos to remind them of the families they left behind.

Through Monica Tran, who cted as interpreter, the Montagnards said they hadn’t much choice in coming to Canada.

“Only the UN[HCR] picked for us,” said Siu Hbeng’s husband, Rocam Phang.

He added that he’d never even heard of Canada before being told they would relocate here and had no idea what to expect.

In Phnom Penh, “they didn’t give us any more information” about Canada, he said. But asked whether they were happy to be here, the eight responded unanimously: “Yes.”

The alternative they were presented, they said, was to return to Vietnam; they were told they could not remain in Cambodia.

Y Klo said he had no regrets about relocating to Canada. Returning to Vietnam would likely have meant imprisonment for practicing his religion, he said.

“In Hanoi, they say they don’t oppress the minorities about religion, but local governments oppress us,” he said.

He added that he was grateful to retired King Norodom Sihanouk and the Cambodian government for allowing them to stay in Cambodia as long as they did.

“We really appreciate King Sihanouk because without him we cannot come to Canada,” Y Klo said. But, he added: “We still miss Cambodia too.”

“In Cambodia, it is similar to Vietnam, but when we came to Canada, It’s not a common sky.”

Since their arrival, immigration workers, the church, and members of Vancouver’s Vietnamese community, have given the refugees tremendous support, the group said.

Still, they said, adjusting to life in Canada has been at times frustrating and frightening.

“The most scary thing is the language,” Tran explained. “They are afraid to go out because they are afraid to talk.”

Unable to ask for directions in English and unfamiliar with Western customs, the Montagnards said they don’t dare venture around the city by themselves.

And taking public buses or purchasing items at the grocery store can be daunting.

“There are a lot of things we are afraid of,” Siu Hbeng said.

“We know [at the grocery store] we enter one way and we line up to pay the cashier. I like to walk around, but I’m afraid to get lost.”

The Canadian government will fund English-language courses for the refugees, Tran said.

But since classes may not start until September, even the most mundane tasks, such as opening a bank account, cannot be done alone, she said.

Rocam Phang said they are often bored, spending their days cooped up in the house with little to do. Among their meager belongings, they have several used television sets, but are unable to understand any English programs and resort to watching Vietnamese-language videos.

“I don’t know what to do-just stay home, eat, sleep,” Rocam Phang said.

He and several of the others also said they miss the families they left behind.

Rocam Phang and Siu Hbeng have two children, aged 7 and 9 years, who remain with relatives in Vietnam. The couple said they’re able to speak occasionally with their children by telephone, and Siu Hbeng expressed hope that she may one day apply to have them join her in Canada.

Y Klo said he is not so fortunate. He said he does not contact his wife and 7-year-old child because he is afraid for their safety.

Y Klo explained that he had been imprisoned by Vietnamese authorities and fled to the jungles after he managed to escape one night when his guards carelessly left the gate to the jail unlocked. He has not heard from his family since, he said.

Despite arriving in Canada, the group said their future here remains uncertain.

Y Klo hopes the government will help him find a job once he’s finished English classes “to give me peace in my mind and settle down here,” he said. But asked what kind of job he hoped to find, he shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Tran said some local Vietnamese-speaking shop owners have already offered to provide work to the group, but she recommends they first learn English before seeking employment.

For the first year, the government provides CDN$953 (about $800) per month to each couple, CDN$520 of which is allocated to rent, CDN$307 to food and CDN$126 to transportation, Tran said. Single refugees are each given a total about CDN$473 per month.

If the refugees are unable to find work after their initial year in the country, they may be eligible for further assistance, Tran said.

Their current allowance, however, allows for few luxuries.

“If we try to save, I think this is enough,” Rocam Phang said, adding that they attempt to keep their food costs low.

“Vegetables are very expensive,” he said.

Despite the struggles of adjusting to their new lives, Kpa Bum said he’s thankful for having come this far.

“God loves us. [In the jungle] we were sick sometimes, but we did not die,” he said. “I really thank God.”

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