For three years, Khampho Khounvixay and his band of Laotian guerillas roamed the hills of central Laos attacking and scavenging Communist supply lines and camps, intent on winning back a country that everyone else thought was lost. And it was lost.
Even with financial assistance from persons saying they represented the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Khounvixay said, his soldiers could barely control the hilly area along the Mekong River after sunset. In one battle, Khounvixay had two of his fingers shot off.
As the Communists secured more land, Khounvixay and his men began to dart back and forth across the Thai-Laotian border. After several devastating defeats and little help from the outside, Khounvixay late last year crossed the border into Thailand fr the last time.
After staying in a refugee camp in Ubol, Thailand, for three months, he came to the United States. His U.S. sponsors knew that his life, like those of thousands of other guerrillas who fought the Communists, would be threatened if he returned to Laos.
Now the former guerrilla leader lives in Chillum Heights, a northern Prince George's community that is home to about 16 Laotian families. And like many of the more recent refugees who have come from Indochina, Khounvixay has problems.
He speaks very little English and is barely literate in his own language. For him, school ended after third grade. In contrast to the earlier Indochinese refugees who came to this country, Khounvixay lived outside the city and had little or no contact with Americans.
Moreover, in his 29 years, he has been but one thing -- a soldier -- first in the Royal Lao Army, then a guerrilla after the the Communist takeover in Laos. Thus, like many of the refugees in the most recent exodus from Indochina, he has no salable skill. For the past two months, he has taken English classes sponsored by the county Department of Social Services.
"I'm just hoping that I can learn enugh English to take some vocational courses," Khounvixay said through a translator as he sat in the classroom where he learns the strange new language. "It is hard to learn English and the culture is very different."
Over the past five years, nearly 5,500 Indochinese refugees have come to Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The refugees first began pouring into Montgomery County in large numbers shortly after the fall of the Saigon government in 1975. The county received a refugee assistance grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1976 and has since become the home of 3,500 refugees.
Prince George's, working at a much slower pace, did not create a truly viable Indochinese refugee program until early this year. Most of the 2,000 or so refugees in the county have come in the past two years. According to social workers, they chose Prince George's largely because of the lower-priced housing.
Now the two counties run similar programs, providing the new Americans from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with English classes, career and job placement counseling and help with transportation and housing. Montgomery also pays full or partial tuition for about 31 refugees in vocational training programs.
Programs in both counties are bankrolled by the federal government, which reimburses states for services rendered to the new arrivals. Refugee families receive the same financial assistance as do other poor families with unemployed breadearners. That adds up to about $314 a month for a family of four.
The first wave of Indochinese were dfferent from the most recent arrivals. According to social workers in both counties, most of the earlier refugees were middle-class Vietnamese urbanites who had had fairly extensive contact with Americans. Some spoke English fluently, and most were well-educated.
Many had been upper-level bureaucrats, soldiers, businessmen and office workers in cities like Saigon. When their countries fell, the United States helped them to take flight. They left by boat and by plane, in some cases using their own financial resources.
The most recent refugees have had a much more difficult time adapting to their new homes. Though some well-educated Indochinese refugees are still leaving their countries, many of those now coming to the United States are farmers, fishermen and soldiers.
"Now we're seeing a more diverse group of refugees, many of who didn't live in the city, are barely literate in their own language and have no skill that is marketable in this country," said Helen Gardel, director of the Prince George's Indochinese Refugee Program.
Lin Nemiroff, director of the Montgomery County Indochinese Refugee Program, sees a similar pattern in the backgrounds of the most recent refugee arrivals.
"The new refugees have placed a greater demand on our resources because they require more language and vocational training for a longer period of time," said Nemiroff. "And since the federal government has been slow in approving new funding for the refugee programs, we've had to constantly stretch our resources."
Congress has not yet approved funding for the refugee program for fiscal 1980, which started last October, according to Nemiroff. Instead, the program is being run with funding left over from fiscal 1979 and a supplemental appropriation granted by Congress. As a result, the county had to cut its expenditures by 45 percent, down to $315,000 this year.
In Prince George's, the lukewarm federal committment has led to these and other problems. For example, there is little money for transportation. As a result, the Laotians in Chillum Heights have to leave their homes between 6:30 and 7 each weekday morning to walk the three miles to their language classes, which begin at 8:30.
Because some of the new refugees have little education and few marketable skills, Gardel worries about their future.
"Personally I don't see how some of the refugees are going to make it," she commented."Some of the refugees are very highly motivated, but some of the educational and vocational barriers may take many years to break down. It will certainly be difficult to keep spirits high."