New Home a Distant World for Montagnards

“Your house in America will have doors and windows that lock,” Leslie Timko says. “Did your houses in the highlands have that?”

Sok Boramey translates the question into Vietnamese. Most of the Montagnards say no.

“Americans usually sleep on squishy mattresses,” Timko says. “Are you used to sleeping on mattresses like that, or do you usually sleep on mats?”

Vehemently, in unison, they answer: “Mats!”

“Well, in the United States, your resettlement agency is required to get you a mattress. But you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.”

From huts in the jungle to high-rise apartments, these Mon­tagnards —Vietnamese hill tribe members who fled government persecution over a year ago and sought asylum in Cambodia—are preparing to make a huge leap.

The US state of North Carolina, where the majority are being resettled, is almost exactly across the globe from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—about as far away as you can possibly get. The mental distance, the gulf between two utterly different ways of life, may be even greater.

In the highlands, they practice communal farming, moving their communities to new fields and letting others lie fallow. They speak tribal languages, weave clothing in tribal patterns, follow tribal codes of conduct.

But the tribal way of life is in­creasingly threatened. The Viet­namese government in re­cent years has flooded the highlands with ethnic Vietnamese settlers, taking the tribes’ traditional land and diluting their political strength, Montagnards and human rights groups say.

The government persecutes the Montagnards for their political beliefs—many want an independent homeland, and most oppose the Hanoi government—and their religious beliefs, since many are Christian, the groups say.

In February 2001, the Montagnards held mass protests. A violent crackdown by Vietnamese police ensued. Hundreds of Montagnards—men, women and children—fled across the border to Cambodia’s Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, where they hid in the jungle.

In May 2001, the UN High Commission for Refugees set up a camp in Mondolkiri province—another was later added in Ratanakkiri province—protecting the asylum seekers as the UN began negotiating with the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments.

Negotiations broke down early this year, and in March 2002 the US agreed to resettle the asylum seekers. And so 905 Montagnards—few of whom had ever owned a television or refrigerator—were brought to Phnom Penh to wait for the flights that would take them across the world.


As of early this week, 558 of the refugees had already left, with the remainder set to depart by the end of this month. Before they go, they get a crash course in US life, taught by Leslie Timko.

Timko, a 40-year-old Caucasian woman from the US, works for the International Organization for Migration, which also gives the refugees their medical exams and makes the travel arrangements.

For Timko, a thin, well-dressed woman with a constant smile and stylish black-framed glasses, the cultural gap her three-day course is supposed to bridge can be dizzying. This is a couch. This is a bathtub. This is an escalator. This is a lease. This is a “help wanted” ad.

Her accomplice in this effort is Sok Boramey, 45, a tall Cambodian teacher who grew up in the so-called Kampuchea Krom area of southern Vietnam. Beyond just translating, he suffuses the class with his energy—his booming voice, big-teethed grin, and eyebrows that wiggle above his glasses when he questions his students.

More than just acquainting the refugees with the strange objects they will encounter, Timko and Sok Boramey try to convey some idea of the social values of their new home.

There are many rules—some law, some politeness: Don’t smoke in theaters or offices. Don’t urinate in public. Don’t litter. Wait in line. Sit in chairs. Wear shoes. Don’t pick lice. Don’t slaughter live animals in your apartment.

There are cultural differences: Waiters and taxi drivers should be tipped, but not police officers. Standards of personal hygiene are high. Punctuality is valued. Privacy is respected.

The concept of privacy is difficult for the Montagnards to understand. They don’t see why people should hide from each other, or have goals different from those of the larger group, they tell Timko.

For behind all these instructions lies not just the difference between urban and rural society, modern and primitive, the high-tech and the handmade. It is the difference between the family-oriented, communal mindset of the tribes and the individualistic, progress-driven US.

When the class discusses privacy, Timko tells the refugees that they have something to offer the US—their strong sense of community. Left unsaid is the struggle they will face to reconcile the two: A people that do not hide anything from one another, living behind doors and windows that lock.


Timko, who based her curriculum on an IOM course used in Kenya, says she tries not to impose her own values on the group. She tries to explain the rules about public smoking without lecturing, to explain the advantages of an education without moralizing, to explain contraception without advocating it.

“These are people who want to have children,” she says. “I tell them it’s expensive to have children in the US, but I’m careful not to try to talk them out of it”—especially since, according to human rights groups, the Vietnamese government fines the highlanders for having children in an attempt to reduce their numbers.

Domestic violence is a tricky issue, since wife-beating is culturally acceptable to the Montagnards, according to Timko’s students. Timko explains that even if your spouse doesn’t object to being beaten, it is a crime and can be reported by neighbors.

“They laugh and giggle about it, but I try to bring them down, make things more serious, so they know we take it seriously in the United States,” she says.

The Montagnards seem to view the US with a mixture of fear, wonder and plain befuddlement. Especially incredulous looks creep over their faces when Timko tells them they will walk into a little room, close the door, take off all their clothes and lie in a tub of water.

Timko’s favorite part of the class is when she asks the Montagnards what they would tell her if she were a refugee being resettled in the Central Highlands. “We would teach you to collect firewood in the jungle,” they say—warning her to look out for leeches. “You couldn’t wear short skirts,” they say.

Many of the questions the Montagnards ask reflect the difficult process of trying to fit the strange, unruly concept of the US into their perspective.

One asked how many tribes there are in the US, a difficult question to answer. One asked about the US’ indigenous people—Timko explained that, like the Montagnards, they had been persecuted and forced off much of their land.

One of the refugees asked Timko how to go about getting permission to leave the state of North Carolina and travel to another state. It was a poignant moment. Timko explained that in the US, no one monitors your movements.


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