When Le Thi Hong, a 26-year-old Vietnamese refugee, arrived at Dulles International Airport recently, she was greeted by her two younger sisters and a woman she had never met.
Yet for Hong, one of almost 8,000 Indochinese refugees expected to resettle in the Washington area at the rate of 650 per month over the next year, the stranger could be the most important person in her future.
She is Jackie Bong Wright, a mental health paraprofessional and a former refugee from Vietnam who escaped three days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Wright is anxious to combat the emotional traumas and cultural shock faced by the incoming boat people.
There are approximately 1,300 Laotians and Mongs, 450 Cambodians and 8,500 Vietnamese refugees in suburban Washington. About 6,000 of these have settled in Northern Virginia, according to HEW estimates. Another 2,500 are in suburban Maryland, with 1,845 in the District of Columbia.
By September 1980, however, the Indochinese population in this area, already the third largest in the country, is expected to nearly double in size.
"The first wave of refugees in 1975 had worked closely with Americans and spoke fluent English. They could more easily adapt to American life," Wright said. "But that has changed. These speak no English, have never seen a toilet or a street light. The cultural shock is amazing."
Specialists in refugee affairs say that, without reliable emotional counseling, new Indochinese refugees may experience acute depression, withdrawal from society, suicide, alcoholism, the destruction of vital family relationships and child abuse, all within two years of their arrival in America.
Wright said a recently resettled Vietnamese family of four in Alexandria dramatically illustrates the severity of some mental health problems.
"They totally withdrew from their new surroundings. The father lost his job and refused to work. They refused to let their children attend school and even refused to leave their apartment," Wright said. "You almost could not go inside because of the smell, and they were evicted from that apartment."
Wright conducts a weekly support group for 50 Vietnamese families and said Hong was typical of incoming refugees who have had no contact with Americans.She said these refugees carry time bombs of latent stress and grief from the "extraordinary traumas" of the boat passage from Vietnam.
Hong and her 2-year-old baby survived a Thai pirate attack on an 800-mile boat trip from Vietnam to a refugee camp outside Manila in the Philippines. After a year in the Philippine camp, the baby suffered from open blisters and malnutrition.
Hong's "father was killed by the communists in 1975, and her brother and husband have been imprisoned. She does not know the whereabouts of her mother," Wright said.
In the Philippine camp, where 900 refugees lived in squalor, each surviving on one cup of rice and one slice of pork per day, Hong, like many other refugees, relied on the sustenance of her dreams.
"I dreamed of freedom. It is hard to express," she said through an interpreter. "I feel happy, but sad . . . but happy. The sadness I do not understand."
Hong's transition to an American lifestyle will be eased because of Wright, and a $138,000 HEW Indochinese Special Mental Health Project begun in January.
An important aspect of Wright's and Hong's relationship is that Wright knows the pain of separation and guilt most refugees suffer.
Wright, 39, was the wife of a South Vietnamese government official who was killed about a month before the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. She joined an exodus of several thousand Vietnamese three days before the fall of South Vietnam by pretending to be the wife of an American businessman. Now married to a State Department employe, Wright explained her reasons for becoming a counselor for newly arrived refugees:
"My mother, who is 67 and is still in Vietnam, was writing me letters at the time, and I felt a tremendous guilt. Here I was living the good life, and my mother was writing me that she was hungry and the communists weren't giving her enough to eat. Now I work so hard all day that I am exhausted. But I have never been happier, because now I am doing something to help."
Wright works on a seven-month internship with Northern Virginia Family Services, a non-profit agency.The mental health project is part of a $2.5 million nationwide effort by HEW.
The project is conducted locally under the auspices of the New Trans-Century Foundation, an 11-year-old, Washington-based consulting firm.
Wright, six other Vietnamese, one Laotian and one Cambodian refugee received a three-week training course from a Vietnamese psychologist and HEW representatives. The training included role playing, studies of problems and cultural differences in former refugees and support counseling.
All nine have joined Washington-area social service and volunteer agencies to counsel incoming refugees. They meet weekly with Dr. Tran Minh Tung, a psychiatrist with the George Washington University Medical Center, to discuss problem cases and counseling methods.
"Our culture has taught us to avoid our emotions, to look upon psycholigical need as a weakness. Yet the emotions must be released," Tung said.
"There is no equivalent to the psychiatrist or the psychologist in Indochinese society. Because of the religion of Buddhism, which teaches emotional restraint, and the fact that it is considered a weakness for a person to seek emotional help, they have a tendency to hold it all inside," he said.
Mong Heng, 35, a Cambodian refugee who came to Washington in 1975, said he feels "helpless and alone" in his job as a mental health counselor. Heng is an intern with the federally funded Indochinese Educational Program in Arlington and is part of the New TransCentury training program.
"There is only one other Cambodian counselor in all of Northern Virginia," Heng said.
He added that many Cambodians have been unable to shake their ancient cultural animosities toward the Vietnamese.
"They frequently get into a withdrawn state. They won't come to English classes, and the reason they usually give is that there are too many Vietnamese there," Heng said.
"It is very difficult to determine their emotional needs. Of all the Indochinese, the Cambodians have suffered the most. Once in America, they have difficulty adapting to the fact that their children become Americanized, and seem to forget about Cambodia."
Most of the refugees interviewed said they were not anxious to return to their homeland, but the Cambodians were different.
"Everyone still hopes to go back, some to run out the Vietnamese," said Heng. "They don't want to wait until someone else changes the current situation in Cambodia. They want to go back and do the changing themselves."
Wright, other Indochinese counselors, Tung and the administrators of local Asian programs feel that existing federal, religious and private programs are insufficient to solve the emotional problems of new refugees.
They have decided to form the Committee of Indochinese Refugee Social Services to address the problem.
The program will be run solely by Indochinese refugees who arrived in the Washington area in 1975 who will set up a welcome center, locate temporary and permanent housing and provide sponsorship for an estimated 400 refugees per month.
Wright said the local branch of the American Council of Nationalities Service, a national, federally funded, non-profit organization based in New York City that provides assistance for immigrants, refugees and the foreign born, has offered to provide $400 per refugee. Wright said this would occur once a charter had been established.
Americans who may act as sponsors for the group include Ambassador-at-Large Dick Clark, recently appointed by President Carter as the coordinator for refugee affairs at the State Department; former CIA director William Colby, and the widow of Gen, Creighton W. Abrams, the last commander of the U.S. military forces in Vietnam.
Former ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker and his wife have also expressed support of the yet-to-be-organized social service, as has former Deputy Ambassador to South Vietnam Samuel D. Berger and several American couples who lived in and around Saigon in the 1950s and '60s.
"The time has come for those Indochinese who have settled and prospered to extend an helping hand," Wright said.
"We have left our people at home, and try to live in the present and the future. We are hopeless, mixed up, confused, but there is hope if people listen."