Since the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975, approximately 186,000 Southeast Asian refugees have come to the United States. Eighty percent of these refugees have been resettled through churches or religious agencies, according to John Yaring, migration and refugee coordinator of the Catholic Charities of Arlington.
Through the efforts of churches like St. Mark's Catholic Church in Vienna, many of these families have been warmly welcomed, clothed, fed, housed and eventually assimilated into communities.
Parishioners at St. Mark's have helped resettle four refugee families since 1975. The church's program is successful, said Betty Baker, chiarman, because its workers have the experience to do the job properly.
Committees collect used clothing and furniture, register children in schools and adults in English propgrams, find housing and jobs, and provide transportation to doctors, grocery stores and church. Other families take them on outings to museums and parks.
"Basically we support them until they can live on their own," said Baker. "It could be a few months or it could be a year." Until then, the church pays all expenses with the exception of $250 per refugee it receives from the sponsoring agency. Sponsoring agencies receive $350 per refugee from the government, and sometimes pass on portions to congregations. The rest is used for emergency aid and administrative expenses.
Helping the refugee families has not been a burden for St. Mark's, said Baker. "We're a large parish and we don't have many financial restrictions. Everyone pitches in," she said. "We have committees responsible for different tasks, so the responsibilities are well spread out."
The biggest problem, Baker said, has been language. And one family, Baker discovered, was black-marketing food stamps. "I told them how I disapproved of it and explained that they were jeopardizing the whole system," she said. "As soon as they understood what they were doing wasn't acceptable here, they stopped."
Baker became involved in the resettlement program in June 1975 when her church sponsored two families. Both are totally independent now, Baker said.
Another family came two years ago and Baker still has contact with them. They are independent now also, but still have a problem with English.
In February, the parish reguested a hard-to-place family from their sponsor agency, the United States Catholic Congress, and got a family of 13.
Baker, the mother of three grown children and one teen-ager, baby-sits several children during the day. She volunteered and eventually became chairwoman of the resettlement program "because when I offered to do some little bit of help, in the beginning, I found it very rewarding," she said. "When you see someone's life changing before your eyes, it's very rewarding."
Althoug Catholic churches have resettled about half the Southeast Asian refugees in this area, Lutheran and Unitarian churches and synagogues also have participated.
And, this month for the first time in this area, a Buddhist group, the Buddhist Congregational Church of America on 16th Street NW, sponsored four families. Although their program didn't start until February, they already have taken in 34 refugees, according to Hiep Lowman, director of Buddhist Social Service of the Buddhist Congregational Church of America.
Lowman, who has six children and is guardian of three others, has been working day and night looking for housing and sponsors for the families. She plans to sponsor 60 more refugees in April and eventually up to 150 a month.
"We keep them here at the temple for about two weeks," Lowman said. "Right now we have two families with 15 children and another family just arriving."
Their living quarters on the third floor of the huge old house consist of four bedrooms sparsely furnished with nearly wall-to-wall mattresses or the floor.
Dr. Thich Giac Duc, president of the Buddhist Congregational Church of America, says he thinks the plan will work. But he is depending on a lot of charity from friends and other Buddhists. Lowman already has approached 10 churches for clothing and other aid. She said some have given clothing but only two said they would think about sponsoring a family.
Lowman and Duc believe the Buddhist resettlement program is vital because they, as fellow Vietnamese, have a better understanding of the refugees' needs and therefore can help them feel comfortable and become independent more quickly. CAPTION: Picture, Nguyen Van Dao family from Malaysia is living in room at Buddhist Congregational Church on 16th Street NW.
By James M. Thresher-The Washington Post