The passage was arduous for Minh Huynh, who at 16 was neither child nor man.
From war-ravaged Saigon, the youth swam to a small fishing boat, leaving behind the family of 11 that had scraped together $2,000 in gold to purchase his ticket to America. The boat took him to Malaysia, where he spent a year in a resettlement camp with the ground his bed and the river his bath. The next year he was transferred twice, once to the Philippines and once to San Francisco.
Finally last April, Huynh, the son of a merchant, enrolled at Montgomery Blair High School in hopes of realizing the beginning of a dream: to learn English and finish the high school education that had ended abruptly when the communist regime gained complete control of his native Vietnam.
Last week, however, government bureaucracy crashed into his world of dreams when a letter from the Maryland Department of Social Services informed Huynh, now 19 and a sophomore, that a change in a federal refugee assistance program required him to make a choice. He could remain in high school and lose his public assistance payments and food stamps or drop out of school and continue to receive benefits.
"It's ridiculous," says Blair vice principal Mary Curry. "What this regulation says is if you sit home and watch television and eat pretzels and popcorn that's fine, you can get your money. But if you go to school and try to learn you lose it. Does that make sense?"
Last Wednesday, Huynh, who has no form of support other than the $230 he receives in payments and food stamps, decided to withdraw from Blair. On Thursday, however, school officials refused to sign a proof of withdrawal. So, on Friday, left with no other option, Huynh appealed the cutoff decision to the state social services office in Rockville.
Huynh was the first refugee at Blair to be notified about the benefit restrictions, but he won't be the last. Local school officials estimate that as many as 1,200 students in the Washington area -- as many as 90 at Blair alone -- could be forced to make a decision between high school and benefits.
The change in the federal refugee assistance program says unaccompanied refugees who are over 18 and who will not graduate from high school by their 19th birthday should not receive benefits while enrolled full-time in school. The policy change became effective Aug. 1, but due to delays and changes in other refugee programs some jurisdictions like Montgomery County are only now beginning to notify recipients of the change. Others, like Prince George's and Arlington counties, have yet to do so.
Huynh, who shares a one-bedroom, $279-a-month apartment in Takoma Park with two other refugees -- both unemployed and looking for work -- will lose his benefits Nov. 1.
Three or four years ago, school officials said, such a policy change would have had little effect. Most refugees were arriving in family groups and their children were younger. But today, the majority of refugees enrolling in high school -- as many as 70 percent -- are unaccompanied young adults 17 or over, according to school officials. The effects of the change could be devastating, officials say.
Federal officials disagree.
"The goal of the refugee program is to get refugees to become self-sufficient in the quickest time possible," says Oliver Cromwell, a spokesman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal office that finances assistance programs for the 610,000 East Asian refugees living in this country. The policy change is part of a broader attempt to bring refugee programs in line with other welfare programs available to American citizens, he notes.
Americans 18 and over and receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children while enrolled in school lost their benefits Oct. 1, 1981, while refugees in this same category -- receiving benefits in a family group -- lost their benefits in April 1982. It is only fair, Cromwell says, that unaccompanied refugees be treated similarly.
"We realize that one of the effects of the new policy change may be that some students will drop out and continue to receive welfare," says Cromwell. "But with the cutback in the number of months they won't be able to stay on for long." The "cutback" reduces from 36 to 18 the number of months refugees can receive assistance under special programs, a change that occurred in April.
Such modifications eventually will help the refugees assimilate more quickly into the American work stream, Cromwell says, but high school officials say all the changes will bring about is a permanent spot at the bottom of the income heap.
"Whoever is making these regulations is not understanding some of the circumstances of the refugee students," says Robert Talbot, director of the English as a Second Language program at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. "Many of these students were in refugee camps for three or four years where they didn't receive any education at all . . . It's impossible to think that they will graduate at 18. Most of them have a difficult time even graduating at 21."
Vice principal Curry, who refused to sign Huynh's notice of withdrawal, agrees. " The social workers talk about setting up job interviews for these students," she says. "We can't even get jobs for our English speakers. Tell me what sort of jobs are they going to get these kids? These kids aren't looking for a permanent handout; they only need a little help now."
Huynh, speaking through an interpreter, said he was worried about the benefits cutoff and that sometimes his financial problems were overwhelming. But he added that he "just wanted to get enough education and go to college so I could get a skill and a job and settle down to a regular life."
Ellen Gardell, a counselor with the Prince George's County social services office, says it will be tough. "I guess some of them can become janitors, but they can't be maintenance people . . . that would require knowing how to repair machines and being able to follow directions."
If refugees are interested in furthering their education, federal officials argue, they can work during the day and attend night school or enroll in special language programs offered by the local social service offices.
"There are all kinds of ways to get an education," says Cromwell. "Americans have done it."