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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinAugust 20, 2004 Issue 

Former refugee knows what new arrivals feel

Catholic Charities coordinator fled a re-education camp

By Crystal Delwiche
Compass Correspondent

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When So Thao stepped off the plane in Beaver Dam in 1980 as a refugee, he wasn't ready to start over in a new land, but he knew it was a choice he had to make. He was 26 when he and his wife, Pai Lo, and brother, Shou, arrived.

Today, Thao, resettlement coordinator for Catholic Charities, will work with many of the 1,005 Hmong refugee families expected to arrive in northeast Wisconsin over the coming months from a temple in Thailand.

Last December, the United States government announced that it would resettle the 15,000 refugees living at the Wat Tham Krabok temple, who were not able to obtain legal status in Thailand. Many felt it was still not safe to return to their native Laos because they had helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

These refugees will face many of the same struggles Thao did when he first arrived.

"It was hard to start all over again. It was hard to think about how to become self-sufficient in a new culture you know nothing about," Thao said.

Thao had been a lieutenant in the Laotian army, serving as a forward air guard on ground communication and guiding U.S. pilots to the areas they would attack. After the Communist takeover of his country, Thao spent five years in a re-education camp. He escaped from Laos while on leave and fled to a Thai refugee camp.

He was one of the nearly 160,000 Hmong refugees resettled in the U.S. from 1975 to 1995 as part of a promise the U.S. government made when they recruited the Hmong to fight against the Viet Cong. Thousands more returned to Laos in the early 1990s under supervision of the United Nations Higher Commission of Refugees. When the last official Hmong camps in Thailand closed in the mid-1990s, some 30,000-40,000 Hmong refugees who did not believe it was safe to return to Laos remained in Thailand.

Many went to live in the rural Hmong villages in Thailand. For others, the only option was Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddist temple that became known as a place where the Hmong would have limited protection.

"Like myself, many of the principal applicants coming from the temple would have been leaders, military commanders or fighters during the war," Thao said. "They will have a hard time learning to assimilate in a society they know nothing about. But, they are not coming for themselves. They are coming for their children. They have hope that their children will succeed in the U.S."

More than 60% of the Wat's residents are 18 or younger. About half were either born there or came as toddlers.

Thao says support for the resettlement from communities in northeast Wisconsin has been overwhelming. Catholic Charities has been flooded with telephone callers asking how they can help. Volunteers have set up furniture donation drives, volunteered housing and offered their time to help the new families as they arrive.

"The U.S. government has allowed the refugees to come here, and the American people are generous enough to help in local communities. Like the volunteers that helped me, they will make a difference in the families' lives," Thao said.

Catholic Charities staff began preparing for refugees' arrivals by holding informational meetings for churches interested in volunteering and with the community agencies that will work with the family members, and by hiring additional staff to assist the new families. Interagency meetings are held on a continual basis in Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay and Manitowoc.

Catholic Charities is only taking family reunification cases, that is, reuniting refugees with close family members living in this area.

As arrival information is received, Thao and Thomas Xiong, a case manager, meet with the co-anchor family to discuss the new family's arrival and to determine initial needs. They depend on local relatives to assist the newcomers to the best of their ability. To help relatives meet the basic needs of newcomers and move them toward self-sufficiency as quickly as possible, the staff works with other community members, organizations and agencies.

Each family resettled under the U.S. government's Reception and Placement Program will receive a one-time $400 per person stipend, which is used in many cases for security deposits, rent, food or utilities. A case manager helps the family develop a budget.

Thao and Xiong will work with the new arrivals for the first 90 days under a contract with the U.S. government. During that period, they will refer them to schools, literacy programs, jobs, health departments, and so on, and then ensure that needed services have been provided, as well as help remove barriers that keep them from receiving needed services.

Besides providing resettlement services, Catholic Charities has bilingual/bicultural staff who provide additional services such as Refugee Family Strengthening, Refugee Mental Health and programs for refugee youth. These services are generally available for five years from when they first arrive and are intended to help refugees re-build their lives.

Catholic Charities is funded by the annual Bishop's Appeal, federal and state government grants, United Way, fees for services, and proceeds from the Bishop's Charities Game.

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