Montagnards in Eastern North Carolina
New Bern, NC – There are many reasons why people come to eastern North Carolina the beautiful scenery, the laid back atmosphere, or perhaps the proximity to the coast. But some people are living here because they are seeking protection because of persecution they experienced in their homeland. For 20 years, a nonprofit in New Bern has been helping refugees adjust to life in America. Director of Interfaith Refugee Ministry Susan Husson says the organization has brought thousands of refugees to eastern North Carolina.
"We resettle people as far away as Elizabeth City and we also went as far south as Southport. Plus, a lot of places in between. Edenton, little Washington, Greenville, Goldsboro, Kinston."
Primarily funded by federal grants, the mission of Interfaith is to help refugees become contributing citizens in a strange new land. The first step in helping with the transition Husson says is having a safe, furnished apartment when they arrive.
"Someone meets them at the airport. Once they arrive, we get them clothing if that's what they need, finish off the furnishings, help them get social security cards and apply for food stamps and Medicaid which of course are not permanent. And then we help them get jobs and enroll the kids in school and help everyone learn English."
Currently, Husson estimates there are about 13 hundred refugees from Burma, Vietnam, and other parts of the world living in New Bern. Of those, about 150 refugees are from an indigenous Christianized people group that live the mountains of Vietnam. Montagnards fought alongside US Forces during the Vietnam War, and many ended up paying the ultimate price. More than 50 percent of Montagnard men lost their lives. Since the Americans left, Montagnards have suffered torture, imprisonment, and religious persecution.
That's Anui Rmah. His son Anem is translating. Rmah was living in the jungles of Vietnam in 2001 when violent protests broke out.
"there were protest because the north took over their lands, their church, religion, they don't want them to go to church or have their own. And the schools don't really care about us"
The Montagnard's demonstrations were calling for the return of ancestral land, independence, and religious freedom.
"When there are protest till midnight they are fighting, hitting each other, throwing rocks. "
After the protest, a group of about 900 Montagnard men fled into Cambodia leaving their families in Vietnam.
"They tried to find a place to hide because all the police Vietnamese police were trying to find them and if they find them they kill them or hit them and take them to jail and let them spend a lot of years there."
The Cambodian government was going to return the Montagnard men to Vietnam when the United Nations intervened and helped them settle in different countries around the world.
"The UN people were asking him if he wanted to come to America or go to Vietnam and he said he wasnts to come to America because its safer and he don't want to go back to Vietnam and if he does, they will take him to the jails."
On June 7th, 2002, Interfaith Refugee Ministries helped resettle about 30 Montagnards in the New Bern area. One of those refugees was Rmah.
"It was really different compared to Vietnam. Here it was really different. He said they didn't know much English so they had to go thru a little bit of school and find a job."
Rmah was in a new country beginning a new life without his family. He began working so that he could pay for his wife and children to come to America to live with him.
"So he had to send a lot of money to send to Vietnam and pay for a passport and when my mom first heard he went to America, she didn't believe him until he called her."
After nearly five years of being separated, Rmah was reunited with his family. They are still living in New Bern today. Rmah is employed at Sanderson Farms in Kinston. And his family has grown to include four boys and two girls.
Today, there are an estimated 6,300 Montagnards in the U.S., and about 6,000 of them live in North Carolina. And more are arriving every day. Director of Interfaith Refugee Ministry Susan Husson.
"we have about four cases coming in next week, we had one last night, we have more than that and we have three cases so far in September. So we learn about two to three weeks ahead of time."
And Montagnards are not just settling in eastern North Carolina . They're living throughout the State. As their populations continue to grow, more organizations are reaching out to them. Craven Community College and Interfaith Refuge Ministry are partnering to help them learn English. Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.