Posted on June 20, 2005

Refugee Culture Shock

Miranda Leitsinger, AP, June 18

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Coming from one of the poorest and most remote parts of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese refugees were understandably confused and amused as they learned about their new home.

Saunas, snow, supermarkets.

The 17 sandal-clad farmers who fled their homeland, clambered through the Cambodian jungle and were rescued by the United Nations were preparing to reach their final stop: Finland.

They are Montagnards, hill tribe people who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands last year over land confiscations and their Protestant faith, which they say arouses the suspicions of the Vietnamese communist authorities. The United Nations now cares for about 650 of the refugees in Cambodia and more are trickling in.

Last month, with 78 Montagnards preparing to leave for Finland, Saed Guled of the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration in Helsinki was giving them a lesson on what to expect: an apartment, language classes, help from a social worker and translator.

That sounded like the easy part. Then came an introduction to ATM cards (they looked curiously at the card he showed them). The subway (they seemed to have some difficulty imagining a train running underground). And the supermarket (no bargaining permitted, Guled cautioned).

Some wrote key words on their arms, such as euro and Nokia, the name of the Finnish mobile-phone maker, and peppered Guled with their questions and fears.