June 26, 1994, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: City Times; Page 12

LENGTH: 2015 words



BODY: Taped to the wall of Ho Hoang's Chinatown apartment is a handwritten Vietnamese proverb that in English means: "On the outside, things look pretty. But on the inside, there's misery." But as Hoang and his 12-year-old twin daughters, Tam and Thien, gather on the floor of their virtually barren apartment, their eyes can't disguise the sadness that comes from years of poverty, misfortune and family separations.

Two years ago, Hoang arrived in the United States with his mother and daughters with the hope of settling into a comfortable life and eventually sending for the girls' mother in Vietnam.

But the family still depends on $800 a month in <welfare> because Hoang's heart is failing and he can't find a job. The girls' mother , who is Hoang's second wife, can't leave Vietnam. And Hoang -- a slight man with skeletal features and sullen eyes -- is haunted by memories of spending three years in a Communist re-education camp, where he was tortured, starved and brainwashed.

Weighed with such burdens, the 57-year-old immigrant now believes his only option is to give his daughters away.

"I love my daughters very much, but if some family would take care of them, I would sign the papers," Hoang said through an interpreter, as his eyes filled with tears. "I don't want to see my daughters grow up in poverty. . . . Life is not bright for me. I just want to die." Like Hoang, many recent Southeast Asian refugees arrived in the United States with dreams of prosperity, but are now living in despair and poverty. Along with speaking little or no English and having limited education and job skills, many Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and other Southeast Asian refugees carry horrifying war memories that make it difficult for them to adapt to a new country.

A recently released UCLA report found that a higher percentage of Southeast Asians in California receive <welfare> benefits than any other ethnic group.

More than half of Southeast Asian adults in California live in households that receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), according to the report, which was issued by UCLA's Asian American Studies Center and the nonprofit group Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. And while Southeast Asians are only 13% of the total Asian American population in California, they account for up to 87% of Asian Americans on <welfare.>

"Given the multitude of problems ranging from the lack of English-language ability to pre-immigration trauma, it is inevitable that a large percentage of refugees would rely on this 'safety net,' " the report said. And "once within the <welfare> system, many have a difficult time escaping." The first large wave of Southeast Asian refugees started coming to the United States in 1975, after the end of the Vietnam War. Between 1975 and 1978, 178,000 refugees arrived, mostly from Vietnam and some from Laos. More than a million Southeast Asians now live in the United States, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

"U.S. citizens opened their arms to the first wave of refugees because they felt sorry for what happened in Vietnam," said Loc Nam Nguyen, a 1975 <Vietnamese immigrant> and director of Catholic Charities' Immigration and Refugee Department in Los Angeles. "The first wave of refugees also were well-educated and were able to easily get jobs with the help of their sponsors."

A second large wave of refugees fled Southeast Asia in 1978, including many Cambodians, Laotians and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. Many of the refugees who came during the past decade are former political prisoners or families who spent long periods in refugee camps and have little or no education.

During the Vietnam War, Hoang served in the Vietnamese Air Force, which fought alongside American troops. After the war, Hoang and others who fought against the Communists were sent to re-education camps. While Hoang was imprisoned, his first wife left him for another man. After his release, he met another woman, and they later had Tam and Thien. But because the couple never obtained a marriage license, Hoang's second wife can't legally join her family in the United States, Hoang said.

"All I think about is how she can come here," Hoang said. "I'm very lonely, and my daughters need their mother."

Hoang and his family first lived with his sister in Massachusetts when they arrived. But after a few weeks, arguments erupted and the Hoangs were kicked out of the home.

With no job, money or friends, they made their way to Los Angeles, and Tam and Thien began attending Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown. Since then, Hoang's heart condition has worsened, and the girls have grown increasingly despondent over the separation from their mother.

"My dream is to bring my mom over here and for my dad to be healthy," Thien Hoang said in Vietnamese. "I worry about that a lot." Like many other former war prisoners, Hoang is depressed and cannot talk about his past experiences without getting angry or flustered.

"A lot of refugees are suffering from post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems, and are not even at the point where they can find a job," said Rano Saing, a counselor at the Indochinese Counseling and Treatment Clinic in Los Angeles. "They come here and they get depressed. They feel numb and their minds are blank because they've been suffering for such a long time."

Saing said that after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975, one of his clients was in a Cambodian hospital when troops stormed in and shot everyone but her. Another client who also was about to be killed by the Khmer Rouge on another occasion fainted and was buried alive.

"The next thing she remembers was waking up in the dirt with dead bodies around her," Saing said. "She had to dig herself out of the dirt.

"How can you expect someone who has experienced something like this to come here and then go right to work or school?" Although the refugees managed to survive and escape the war-torn conditions of their native countries, they are still in "survival mode," said Dore Wong, principal of Castelar Elementary, where about 20% of the school's 1,100 students are Southeast Asian.

"There is a bleakness to their lives because they believe they have no future," Wong said. "They just live for the day."

On a recent morning, Hoang's sister arrived in Los Angeles and announced that she would be taking Hoang's 85-year-old mother, Le Thi Nhung, back to Massachusetts with her or would pay another family in Florida to take care of her.

Although Hoang's sister arrived without notice, neither he nor his daughters appeared to be alarmed or saddened by the grandmother's sudden departure. They simply helped the frail woman pack her clothes in a small suitcase and handed her a paper sack filled with cigarettes and a few containers of cookies.

After sitting on a worn couch for a few minutes, Nhung got up and her granddaughters helped her carry out her belongings. Without speaking, she handed each girl a container of cookies and said goodbye. "It's good that this is happening," Hoang said. "We're so poor. I can't afford to take care of the family. At least now, she'll live in a more comfortable home. This is good news."

Social workers are quite familiar with the sad plight of recent refugees, which can often tear families like the Hoangs apart, but they said it's difficult for them to reach out to everyone because many refugees are reluctant to seek help.

"In Vietnam, people rely only on their immediate families," said Mimi Ngoc Anh Nguyen, program director of the Indochinese Youth Center in Gardena. "Here, if you need help, you need to go outside your family. But Vietnamese people believe that's very shameful."

Services are also somewhat limited for Southeast Asian refugees who speak little or no English.

"The persistence of <welfare> dependency is due to the lack of realistic services to help (Southeast Asian) refugees," said Deborah Ching, executive director of the Chinatown Service Center. "Counseling is not readily available because resources are limited and language assistance is minimal." While Vietnamese in Orange County and Cambodians in Long Beach tend to have access to a variety of counseling, parenting and job-training services because of their large numbers in those areas, Southeast Asians in Central Los Angeles and other parts of Los Angeles County have a more difficult time.

Although Los Angeles County is home to about 114,000 Southeast Asians -- compared to 81,000 in Orange County -- only 33,000 Southeast Asians live in the city of Los Angeles, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

"L.A. is not like Orange County, where you get services in the same area you live in," said Lee Nguyen, a specialist at the Indochinese Youth Center. "Everything is spread out here, and people don't know how to access the system."

The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, which initially was enacted for two years, enabled refugees to receive a variety of financial assistance from the government. The act allowed refugees to receive AFDC; those who did not qualify for AFDC were eligible for Social Security or Refugee Cash Assistance.

Although the 1977 expiration date was extended, the federal government slowly has withdrawn its resources from refugee assistance programs and directed refugees to regular public aid programs.

"When I came in 1975, the government was prepared to help us," said Tri Le, director of the Indochinese Counseling and Treatment Clinic in Los Angeles and a native of Vietnam. "Someone came to my house to teach me English. And by 1977, we were off <welfare.>"

But refugees who arrived later have had more trouble seeking employment as public sympathy toward refugees cooled. Many refugees are also impaired because they are uneducated and have skills suited only for rural work.

Some 59% of Southeast Asian refugees in California who arrived between 1985 and 1990 have less than a high school education, compared to only 38% of the refugees who came between 1975 and 1979, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

"To them, <welfare> is free money," Le said. "And they know that if they got a job, they probably would only make minimum wage, which wouldn't be enough to support their families."

But what's most troubling is that many refugees who arrived in the United States during the 1980s still depend on <welfare> to survive. A 1992 survey found that two-thirds of the Southeast Asian families that entered the United States in 1985 still relied, wholly or partially, on public assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Even those actively seeking employment are struggling for their independence.

"I keep dreaming of being able to work," Hoang said. "But my mind is confused and mixed up. If I don't take the money from the government, my daughters and I would die."

Hoang referred to a well-known Vietnamese proverb that best conveys his thoughts: "Don't give me the fish. Just teach me how to catch the fish," he said. "I want to have my own money because as long as I receive government help, I won't have my own life."

But Hoang said he has repeatedly been turned down for jobs because his health is bad and he doesn't speak English.

"I brought my kids to the freedom country because I want them to be educated here. I know I have to fight for the future of my kids." Loc Nam Nguyen said many refugees have given up on their own dreams, but believe in their children's prosperity.

"Because of the difficulties, many first-generation refugees believe they will be on <welfare> their whole lives," Nguyen said. "They believe this country is full of opportunities, but they are investing all their hopes in their children." Southeast Asians in L.A. County

Southeast Asians comprise about 13% of the total 7.3 million Asian Pacific population in the United States, according to 1990 U.S. Census figures. Los Angeles County is home to more than 110,000 Southeast Asians:

* Vietnamese: 62,594

* Cambodian: 27,819

* Hmong: 359

SOURCE: 1990 U.S. Census