"I would like to tell you a story about a refugee who was here just last month," Began Jackie Bong Wright, a Vietnamese refugee who now runs a temporary shelter for refugees in Alexandria.
Wright was addressing representatives from ACTION -- the federal volunteer program and its subsidiary, VISTA -- who were visiting the shelter earlier this week on a fact-finding tour.
Wright told a young Vietnamese boy whose second-hand trousers were too large. The boy asked Wright for a belt, saying he knew where to buy one. The boy, Wright said, led her to a local grocery where he went directly to the pet supplies.
"He thought the dog and the cat collars were belts," Wright said. "I told him that in America, cats and dogs have their own collars, toys, food, doctors and hospitals.
"As we were leaving the store, he told me he wished his five younger brothers and sisters -- still in Vietnam -- could come to America and be cats and dogs."
As Wright spokem serveral refugees who had arrived from Thailand just two days earliar sat mutely beside her, apparently baffled by the strangers and their language.
By Wright's calculations, those people will be productive members of society within two months.
"We help them find a place to live, enroll them in English classes, help them get jobs and put them in contact with the proper social agencies," Wright said.
Since it was founded in October, Welcome House, as the shelter is called, has helped 30 refugees get started on their new lives.
Mary E. King, deputy director of ACTION, said Welcome House is just the sort of work ACTION likes to see: People helping people.
"It's the whole self-help idea that we encourage," said King approvingly, as she talked to refugees in the small, two-story rowhouse.
King said the major thrust of ACTION the parent organization of the Peace Corps, is to teach people how to take responsibilty for their own lives through programs like the one at Welcome House.
King is in the process of evaluating refugee programs around the country, trying to find ways volunteers can help. One program which King says is working already in Asia refugee camps is refugees being taught enough English to teach other refugees.
King thinks the philosphy can work here too.
"We need to find ways to get the Vietnamese people who are here involved in helping the people who have just arrives," said King. "There are also many former Peace Corps volunteers who once served in Southeast Asia who would like to help these people again."
King acknowledges that the effort to involve recent immigrants is complicated by the fact that many refugees are able to secure only menial labor when they arrive and consequently work at several jobs to support their familes. Time for those people is very difficult to come by.
As she visited several other refugee centers across Northern Virginia earlier this week, King said that the Vietnamese refugee experience should be viewed as another wave of immigration not unlike that which took place earlier in the century.
"The two driving forces in their lives are their familes and hard work," said King. "Those are not alien values -- in the long run that will help them assimilate into American life."
Assimilationis what the teaching staff at Baileys Elementary School in Bailey's Crossroads is trying to teach. When King and company arrived there, Pricipal Helen W. Beals told them the school is one of the few in Fairfax County with a "majority of minorities."
"We have a total of 552 students, 328 of them are minority students and 96 are in our ESL -- English as a Second Language -- program," Beals said.
The majority of students in the English program, Beals said, are refugees from Southeast Asia.
King said volunteers could be used effectively at Baileys School to get parents and grandparents of refugee children involved in the school.
Beals, escorted the visitors into a classroom where foreign-born children, dressed in jeans, turtlenecks and American running shoes, were learning about life in America.
The teacher held up a flashcard of a toy store and asked the children what it was. "Toys-R-Us" they cried out.
She held up a drawing of a dog, which the youngsters correctly identified.
"Where do we buy a dog?" she asked.
"At a dog store," the children answered enthusiastically.