Twenty years ago the face of Prince William County was primarily white, native-born and English-speaking. Ten years ago that began to change. Census figures for 1980 show that nearly 2,500 of the county's 165,000 residents came from Asian countries and the Pacific Islands. They included 547 Koreans, 667 Filipinos and 229 Vietnamese.
Today, the faces in Prince William County are also Hispanic, American Indian, Eskimo, Aleutian and Ethiopian. And, according to county officials, there is a sprinkling of refugees from Afghanistan.
And the language spoken? Just ask the people who run the "English as a Second Language" classes for the county schools.
"Many of the Asian refugees who come to the county are illiterate in their language," said adult education coordinator Otelia Frazier.
"But their motivation to learn English and assimilate into our society is tremendous," said Frazier. "They come to learn English and some take the same class two nights a week to learn it faster -- and in addition, they take basic adult education classes two other nights."
Precise figures on the total number of Asians and Hispanics who have come to Prince William since 1980 are not available, but according to school spokeswoman Kristy Larson, the number of Asian and Pacific Islanders attending county schools jumped from 590 in 1980 to nearly 1,000 in 1983. While the Hispanic population has not taken the same leap, it increased from 549 in 1980 to 628 last year. And although the flood of Asian refugees, which included Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, has slowed to a trickle, Larson said the schools are now seeing children from Nicaragua and Haiti in the English daytime classes.
Ricardo Perez, director of the county social services program, reports that five years ago the agency was inundated with 300 requests in one year from Asian refugee families seeking help. Since they needed only to prove that they were here legally, the overwhelming majority of those asking for help received it -- but only for 18 months.
At first, Perez said, the refugee assistance program had no time limit, but Asian self-help groups expressed concern that unlimited assistance could rob the refugees of initiative and could create dependency.
"Since other governments didn't have public assistance programs, many of the refugees came here and really believed that this is the way life is in America," said Perez. "It was counterproductive."
Because of the Asian peoples' ability to learn quickly and their inclination to assimilate, said Perez, most were prepared to become fairly independent by the time their 18 months were up. "Almost all of them had learned English and had entered programs or had jobs by that time," he noted.
There are fewer Asian refugees coming into this office these days, Perez said. "There are only a couple a month now. But we have helped a few Afghanis in the last year."
Manassas Baptist Church was one of several churches in the county that took refugee families under their collective wings three years ago and helped them with everything from finding furniture to learning the U.S. monetary system.
Taking Asian refugees shopping was fun, said church secretary Edith Woody.
"They learn incredibly fast," said Woody. "I'm not sure if we had to learn another language and another culture we would do as well. They put us to shame."
School employe Rena Salvati teaches "English as a Second Language" courses to refugee newcomers in the county. "For some reason my class is growing again," she said. "I have just requested another teacher to help me."
Attendance has grown from 12 to 18 in two months, she said. Because instruction is on a highly individual basis, Salvati said, it is important that each class have enough teachers to do the job.
Said adult education coordinator Frazier of the refugee students, "They come to class well prepared to learn and they have minds like steel traps. They may cling to their own cultures in their homes but they actively seek out ways to make it here."
Hispanics, Frazier said, learn well but seem less eager to assimilate. "They tend to seek out other Hispanics and cling to their culture and their language. It's just a difference in attitude."
According to Frazier, refugee children come to school with the proper green card (the card issued to lawful resident aliens) and all their immunization records up to date, ready, like their parents, to learn. "It's a challenge because many come to us not being able to speak one word of English," she said. "But it's fun, too, to teach people who are so eager to learn."
Manassas and Manassas Park schools do not have English classes designed for refugee adult students, Frazier said. And residents from those two cities were attending Prince William classes "until we found out," Frazier said. Because county taxes pay for the classes, a small tuition fee will now be charged for out-of-county residents wishing to attend, she said.