About 75 recently arrived Vietnamese and Laotian refugees drank Coca-Cola and munched on Oreo cookies last week as their more experienced countrymen explained what life in Fairfax County would be like.
Those present in the all-purpose room of the Knox Presbyterian Church in Falls Church were just a few of the 3,000 Indochinese refugees estimated to be living in the county, many in the Falls Church-Bailey's Crossroads area. County officials say the number of refugees is growing by about 150 a month, enough to overwhelm even the most organized social service agency.
In an effort to give the refugees basic information about Fairfax and foster a community atmosphere, the county Department of Social Services and the Indochinese Family Services arranged to have "settled" refugees speak to their countrymen about coping with life in the industrialized and affluent world of Fairfax.
The organizers of the meeting said they conferred with refugees about the orientation sessions to make the topics relevant and to minimize hostility between ethnic groups.
"They come from very different countries. They speak different languages and historically some have been warring nations," said Susanne Glock Eisner, director of Indochinese Family Services.
To avoid those pitfalls, the audience was divided into nationalities with the moderators talking to the groups in their native tongues. The topics for discussion included the schools and the English as a Second Language program as well as a matter of major importance to many refugees: Family Reunification.
Beth Hershner, the county's coordinator for refugee programs, said that housing is the biggest problem besetting Fairfax County's refugees.
"It isn't so much paying the rent but finding the housing," Hershner said.
"These people come with their large families and they want to live together," she explained. "But when you're looking for three- and four-bedroom apartments that are not terribly expensive -- in Fairfax -- you're also talking about waiting lists that are sometimes two or three years long."
Eisner says her agency is primarily concerned with the mental well-being of the immigrants.
"These people are under a lot of stress. They experience intergenerational conflicts, marital problems and some of the people get very depressed," she said. "We try to tell them to talk about their problems with our counselors."
Several "settled" refugees agreed with her assessment.
"I got very depressed when I first came here. Now these people have sensible, trustworthy people to talk to," said one Laotian woman, as she gestured toward the speaker.
Hershner says she is anxious to find new programs that will help the refugees adjust to their new surroundings. Since she took her post last fall, Hershner says she has been surprised by the number of citizens who believe the welfare payments, food stamps and health care given the refugees are paid for by the county.
"The county is reimbursed 100 percent by (the federal government) for everything they give to the refugees," Hershner emphasized. "But sometimes Fairfax hasn't gotten enough credit -- not like Arlington has -- for trying to help the refugees through programs like this one."
As a Vietnamese woman passed, her gray hair fastened in a top knot, Hershner remarked: "The elderly refugees -- they may be one group falling through the social services cracks.
"They live with their families and they're not moving into the mainstream. We ought to be looking at ways to help them adjust to their new lives."