Litnisak Khoune, a trained Laotian mountain fighter, was resettled in a barren South Arlington apartment last month.Armed with only $20, a bag of rice, some salt and a bottle of fish sauce, he was turned loose to fend for his wife and three children.
For a day, the family did not eat. "We had nothing to cook the rice in," Khoune told a translator. Hunger drove him to join other Laotian men in a shopping attempt at the local Safeway. They spoke no English and had never seen a supermarket.
"Now we have a lot of food," said Khoune, "but there is nothing else. We just eat and sleep." In the Thai refugee camp where he had lived since 1976, he feared death, disease and violence.
"But maybe I would rather be there, " he said. "There we had no hope. We came here with hope and now we have nothing."
Destitute and lacking in the skills and languages of the West. Khoune is part of a stream of 600 Indochinese refugees who are coming to the Washington area each month.
Estimates of the number of Indochinese refugees already here range from 8,000 to more than 20,000 making metropolitan Washington the third largest center of Indochinese refugees in the country, after California and Texas. And as the United States expands its refugee programs to bring in 14,000 Southeast Asians a month nationwide, knowledgeable officials say the Indochinese population of the Washington area is likely to double before 1981.
It is an immigration with a growing backlash. Stories abound of unprovoked insults and racial slurs.
A Vietnamese man who has been here for a decade -- long enough to build a thriving retail business -- rolled down the window of her Mercedes to talk to a stranger in a suburban gas line. "You SOB," the American man shouted. "We're going to throw you and all your kind out of the country."
Many area officials say they are still not adequately prepared or funded to cope with the influx, and some local politicians do not yet seem to have come to grips with the situation.
"I don't know anything about the numbers we should expect," Fairfax County board chairman John F. Herrity said recently. Montgomery County council member Rose Crenca suggested, "I don't think many of us have translated the news that [refugee] quotas will double into what it means for us."
Social service workers, scrambling to keep up with the surge of new arrivals, vacillate between cautious optimism and serious misgivings about their programs' abilities to cope.
"We just don't know when we're going to be buried by it," one health official said of the rising numbers.
And the backlash against the refugees is becoming increasingly evident, particularly among people who see them as sudden unwanted competition for limited opportunities.
"A lot of blacks are uptight," said John Robinson, director of the Martin Luther King Community Center in South Arlington. "It's a threat for jobs and housing. These people are the new niggers -- they are doing the work blacks don't want and getting their own stores which a lot of blacks who've been here all their lives can't get."
"They could have stayed in their own country and fought the system like we did," said Robinson, "but they chose to leave."
The refugees come to this country fleeing political and economic persecution in Vietnam, war and imminent famine in Cambodia and the vengeance against what they believe to be former soldiers of the Central Intelligance Agency's secret army in Laos.
After months or years in the fetid camps of Thailand and Malaysia, they come to Washington and its suburbs because relatives or friends are here -- because sponsors are here.
But while most of the earlier arrivals adapted quickly and successfully to American life, many of the new refugees -- poorer, sicker, less educated and less prepared for a cosmopolitan environment than their predecessors are utterly bewildered by the new world that surrounds them.
Disappointments and deflated expectations are a problem even for refugees who arrive to relatively well stocked and comfortable surroundings. In the camps, many are nurtured by myths or instant wealth in the United States. "They need a lot of counseling to explain to them the streets aren't paved with gold," said Jeanne MacDaniels of the International Rescue Committee, one of the major sponsoring organizations.
Frictions and historic animosities between Cambodians, Laotians Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam also complicate resettlement efforts. Some Vietnamese families in Maryland, for instance, will give temporary homes to Vietnamese refugees, but refuse to do so for ethnic Chinese, according to resettlement workers in Silver Spring.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a former South Vietnamese diplomat and now a community organizer in Arlington, said some Vietnamese resent the business acumen shown by many Chinese. Some are said to make money even in the camps by selling cigarettes or food at black market prices or building stick houses then selling them to incoming refugees when they leave.
"We see them getting rich and we don't like it," Bich said," . . .but on the other hand they lend a certain economic vitality."
The new refugees' sense of isolation is sometimes intensified by earlier arrivals who virtually ignore them. Southeast Asis cultures tend to emphasize duty to family over duty to community, and the 20 to 25 percent of the refugees who have no family here sometimes languish alone while surrounded by their countrymen. New resettlement agencies founded by former refugees have suffered from a chronic lack of Indochinese community support.
The burden of overcoming these initial problems rests with nine private voluntary agencies, church and charitable organizations that raise funds, find sponsors and shepherd the refugees though their first encounters with American society.
These agencies, some of them already straining to keep up with the current flow, have been plagued by uncertain federal funding and little federal planning. The government provides only $350 per refugee to cover all initial resettlement costs, including rent, clothing and food -- and these funds periodically ran dry earlier this summer as supplemental appropriations dragged through Congress, voluntary agency officials said.
When the initial problems of acculturation and housing are overcome, there are still often serious health problems. Many of the refugees are suffering the effects of months in overcrowded camps -- malnutrition, skin infections, intestinal parasites and tubersulosis according to local health officials.
Dr. Harold I. Passes, TB control officer for Montgomery County, -- Arlington the principal resettlement center of the metropolitan area -- said his office has recorded a 50 percent increase in the number of active tuberculosis cases since 1975, much of it attributable to Indochinese refugees.
Passes blames the federal government for, as he puts it, "dumping the [refugee] program" on local health services and failing to fund an adequate preventive medicine campaign.Medicaid funds relieve little of that burden, he said. "They give us our drugs free," Passes said, "but the direct cost of an additional 50 percent increase in the TB rate? No, the federal government is not helping."
The question of federal funding -- how much, when and for how long -- is vital to the local programs set up to cope with the swelling numbers of Indochinese.
Most local refugee services are funded through the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program, which amounted to $147.9 million in fiscal 1979 and has a proposed budget of $244.4 million in 1980. Local officials agree that increased funding, if Congress approves it, would lighten their burden considerably.
Solutions to the problems of planning, coordination and providing services to the refugees may come once the new wave of Indochinese, even at twice the previous rate, becomes a regular flow. An administration bill now before Congress is specifically designed to help the voluntary agencies better coordinate their activities with the federal government.
State Department officials, aware that areas like Washington which already have high concentrations of refugees may be getting a disproportionate share in the future, recently said that they plan to work with the voluntary agencies to try to find more sponsors -- and relocate more refugees in areas that can shoulder the burden more easily.
But questions remain, officials say, about the effect the refugees have on local neighborhoods, and the often negative, even bitter reactions from the people who live in them. The refugees appear to face resentments both when they fail to adjust -- and are seen as burden on the taxpayer and when they succeed, seeming to take jobs or businesses away from citizens.
Nowhere in the area has the impact of the refugees been felt more strongly than in Arlington.
Once a virtually all-white middle-class suburb full of upwardly mobile federal bureaucrats and their families, Arlington, in the last 15 years, has absorbed successive waves of immigrants -- Cubans and other Hispanics, Koreans, Arabs and now Indochinese -- lured by its proximity to the District and its once abundant supply of low-cost apartments.
"The more you provide for refugees the more [they] keep coming," said one frustrated Arlington housing official who noted that the county's one percent apartment vacancy rate is now the lowest in the metropolitan area. County figures show that in the last few years 25 percent of the moderate-cost garden apartments have been lost to condominium conversions.
"The refugees are competing in a housing market that's extremely tight," said Geneva Cox, an Arlington tenant-landlord worker. "There's a very small number of low-and-moderate-cost units left and that's affecting everyone."
A decade ago the few foreign students in Arlington's schools were likely to be the children of diplomats. Currently there are more than 70 different foreign languages and dialects represented in the county's school system and a quarter of the student popultion is foreign born.
Commercial areas of Arlington have also undergone a dramatic transformation. Clarendon -- once Northern Virginia's premier shopping area, but long since eclipsed by the vast suburban malls -- had slipped into decay when the Indochinese started arriving in 1975.
Now it is a burgeoning commercial center for Oriental foods and merchandise. At least 10 Vietnamese shops and restaurants are clustered along a half-mile stretch of Wilson Boulevard near the county courthouse. Delicate rice paper lamps, lacquer boxes and embroidered silks fill their windows, lychee nuts and 50-pound bags of rice are available on their shelves. The Pacific Oriental Department Store occupies what two years ago was a Lerners women's clothing store.
But the area also is a focal point for resentments.
"We get a lot of complaints that Wilson Boulevard looks like Saigon, that pretty soon there won't be any 'real' Americans left in Arlington," said Kerry Dumbaugh, an aide to Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D.Va.).
"Some of these people complain about the Vietnamese coming here and opening a store while they can't pay their gas bills," Dumbaugh said.
John Robinson at the Martin Luther King Community Center said many blacks feel the Vietnamese get special treatment in terms of welfare eligibility.
They do, in the sense that they do not need to prove "deprivation" in order to qualify. Both the father and mother can live with a refugee family that is receiving cash assistance, and they can work full time and still receive welfare providing they don't earn more than $4,464 a year for a family of four. This is not the case for welfare applicants who are not Indochinese refugees. If an able-bodied parent is in the home and working full time, or both parents are in the home the family is ineligble, Arlington welfare officials say.
Still, the income ceilings are set low for an area where the cost of living is estimated to be $18,026 for a family four.
"I don't know how people live on ($4,464) said Andrew Orlin of the Arlington Department of Human Resources.
In addition, experience suggests that 90 percent of the refugees are off welfare altogether within two years, and because many of the new refugees were manual laborers before, social service workers say they are proving easier to place in what one vocational instructor called "scut work" -- menial jobs -- than their predecessors from more affluent white collar backgrounds.
"I think the refugees are a definite burden," said Orlin. "It's difficult to pinpoint what the counties and states will have to pick up in terms of schools, police, and health services costs . . .
"But, yes we'll cope." he said. "The hardship may be for the people who are coming here."