Nguyen's case was referred to the Fairfax County Department of Social Services last week, shortly after the birth of her first child. She was hoping to find a day-care program that would look after the baby while she studied English and looked for a job.
Nguyen, 24, was assigned a Vietnamese social worker-one of eight in the Washington area being trained to help Vietnamese refugees with emotional and mental problems. And then, according to Tran thi Phuong, the social worker, the woman's story began unfolding.
Nguyen's family and her husband's had planned to escape together from Vietnam last year but ended up in separate boats. The boat carrying his family sank. Her relatives made it to safety. Afterwards, the young couple's life together in American took a nightmarish turn, with him resenting her for her family's luck and blaming her for his losses.
Shortly before the baby was due, her husband abandoned her, and Nguyen in a financial and emotional criss, Tran said.
Social workers dealing with the Washington area's 12,000-member Vietnamese refugee community say they are uncovering hundreds of cases like Nguyen's with refugees who need as much help coping with emotional pressures as they do in meeting their material needs.
These pressures have shown themselves, social workers say, in increased cases of alcoholism, marital separations, and even family violence in the Vietnamese community.
Ironically, the problems exist side by side with the trememdous economic advances the refugees have made ever since they began fleeing their country after Saigon fell to the Communists four years ago today.
One of the most recent national surveys of Vietnamese refugees, conducted by Darrel Montero, director of the Urban Ethnic Research Project at the University of Maryland, shows that the Vietnamese have made remarkable economic strides: 94 percent of all male household heads are employed; 51 percent of the Vietnamese households are earning more than $800 a month; only 3 percent are earning less than $200 a month.
But economic advances aside, there is a dark underside to the otherwise rapid integration of Vietnamese refugees into American society, experts say.
Karen Shanor, codirector of one of the country's first projects to identify and deal with the mental health problems of the refugees, said a certain "mystique that there are no problems" has grown up about the Vietnamese community.
"In the resettlement camps, American officials would talk to (the refugees) and they would look so very placid. There was the impression that everything was all right," said Shanor, a clinical psychologist.
But everything isn't always all right.
Upon arrival, and for at least the first year, the refugees struggled with basic problems of survival: learning English, finding a job, getting a place to live, Shanor said. The emotional problems were left to fester.
Guilt about having survived when so many of their friends and relatives had died, frustration at having to start over-usually with lower level jobs than they had before-or just the sheer trauma of their perilous escape from Vietnam, are, four years later, taking their toll on the refugees, Shanor said.
"It's not exactly a delayed trauma, like with the Vietnam veterans who acted like it wasn't happening . . . It's more of a compounded trauma," which builds up over time, according to Shanor.
Shanor and Vietnamese psychiatrist Dr. Tran Minh Tung have been training eight members of the local Indochinese community to deal with the emotional problems that are cropping up among the refugees. The trainees are stationed at social service agencies in both Washington and Northern Virginia.
In the six weeks that they have been at work, the trainees say, they have found mental health problems among young and old, married and single, the employed and the unemployed.
Many of the tensions the Vietnamese face, according to the trainees, stem simply from the pressures of having to make it economically and from the breakdown of traditional Vietnamese values as the refugees begin to blend more and more into American society.
The growing independence of the Vietnamese women and youths, for example, is creating a great deal of friction in numerous families, according to the caseworkers.
"In Vietnam the husband is the head of the family. He is probably the only one employed," said Duc Duong, an activist in the Montgomery County Vietnamese community. But here, according to the Montero study, 93 percent of all females over 16 have jobs.
"The husband feels he's kind of lossing face," Duong said.
Many of the elderly refugees are finding the extended family structure they depended on in Vietnam for moral and financial support is collapsing here and are finding it difficult to cope.
"I know of one woman-she is 56, her son is 25," said mental health worker Boun Thinh. "Recently, she took a job to help support the family while her son studies. She knows little English.
"I think she's going to have a mervous breakdown . . . IRC (International Rescue Committee) said they could find her a job. She went to work, but she feels like a robot.She can't talk to anybody all day."