The Tribal Lao Training Project

Highland Lao refugees in the United States face serious crises of survival in their new environment. The Tribal Lao Training Project, initiated at the request of the Iu Mien people of Santa Clara County, California, has helped to make them more economically self-sufficient and better able to cope with the complexities of a modern urban setting.

After the Communist take-over of Laos in 1975, many highland Lao tribal peoples, especially Iu Mien and Hmong, found themselves singled out for persecution. Many were killed. Tens of thousands fled to Thailand; subsequently, many were resettled in the United States. These refugees were adapted to a mountain world of shifting cultivation, oral traditions, and distinctive family and religious lifestyles. Neither they nor their host country were adequately prepared for their arrival. Perhaps never before had so many persons from such vastly different traditions suddenly been transported to a complex modern urban setting. Many thousands have settled in California, and of these, several hundred now live in the county of Santa Clara, which has the third-largest population of Indochinese refugees in the United States.

Originally self-sufficient, these peoples became idle for three years or more in refugee detention camps in Thailand, and later for several years were dependent on public assistance in the United States. A few found employment in low-paying, high-turnover, entry-level jobs; they were the first to be affected by downturns in the economy. These experiences discouraged attempts at economic independence, and fostered great caution when these people explored new possibilities.

Reports document the plight of resettled Iu Mien and Hmong people throughout the United States, and their consequent migrations from one spot to another in desperate attempts to seek work. They face at once perplexing cultural and language barriers, unemployment, inadequate job preparation caused by indifference and inexperience from refugee service providers, and sometimes overt hostility and violence directed at them from other minority groups. They fear that they will be unable to adapt to their new environments while preserving their traditions. Those who have paid attention to them often have ulterior motives: missionaries want their souls, local refugee agencies and training programs want money for providing them with often imaginary services, and scholars or students want to extract information. A number of highland Lao peoples have come to realize that they rarely benefitted from these contacts.

Until recently, the Iu Mien and Hmong people of Santa Clara County were invisible minorities within the Lao community. When placed in conventional adult English and job-training programs, they were designated simply as "Lao" or "Asian," with no recognition of their distinctively different backgrounds and social adjustment problems. Because of their unfamiliarity with formal schooling, and in most cases written language, many adult Hmong and Iu Mien were unable to keep up with other refugees. They were, as a result, quickly weeded out or they became discouraged and quit. A few people who completed job-training programs found that they had been poorly trained. Although they held as many as eight certificates, they did not have the necessary skills to be employed in the jobs for which they had been trained. They also found themselves unable to gain access to many necessary social services. The consequences for the Hmong and Iu Mien were widespread unemployment and discouragement, increasing dependency on public assistance, and a threatened extinction of their traditional lifeways.

In April 1983, at the request of Chan Choy Sae Lee, the leader of the Iu Mien people of Santa Clara County, anthropologist James Freeman and social worker Huu Nguyen met with the Iu Mien, who explained their difficulties. On their behalf, Freeman wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County, in which he called attention to the plight of these people. The Supervisors offered to set aside for the Iu Mien some federal monies of the Targeted Assistance Program allocated to the county for refugee job training and placement. Officials of the Targeted Assistance Program had no idea how to reach the Iu Mien or meet their needs; the Iu Mien had no idea how to design a program or apply for funding.

The application procedures for job training were so complicated that many refugee groups were unable to apply. The Iu Mien asked Nguyen and Freeman to write a proposal for them that would take into account their special educational needs and distinct cultural character while also preparing them for employment. After consultation with the Hmong and other Lao groups, Nguyen and Freeman included them in the proposal, requesting an eighteen-month period of English, vocational training, and job placement. This is longer than the usual training program; however, there is ample evidence that many refugees, especially those without prior formal education, need extensive periods of training for English and job instruction, and equally long periods to work out social adjustment problems that otherwise interfere with school attendance and job retention.

The project was awarded funding of $189,000 for sixteen months; this was later reduced to one year (March 15, 1984 to March 14, 1985) because the county was delayed in disbursing the funds. Although this was too short a period for adequate training, the Lao and highland Lao groups opted to proceed with the project to gain some English and job preparation.

Despite its time constraints, the Tribal Lao Training Project has achieved six notable successes: (1) maintained an extremely high class attendance of over 90 percent (unlike most refugee programs); (2) placed 40 students in electronics assembly jobs; (3) found employment for additional Lao and highland Lao persons who were not in the program; (4) increased the visibility of the Iu Mien and Hmong, who became the subjects of numerous local newspaper articles; (5) increased the readiness of employers to hire highland Lao peoples trained in the project; (6) revitalized previously demoralized Iu Mien and Hmong people as they had access to services and employment in Santa Clara County that previously had been unreachable.

To accomplish these gains, the Tribal Lao Training Project did not follow the conventional approaches used by other regular refugee training programs. Rather, the project was adapted to the needs of the people served, while at the same time, it prepared them for jobs in "Silicon Valley" industries of Santa Clara County. The staff consisted of five salaried fulltime and ten part-time employees, plus Nguyen and Freeman, who served without remuneration as co-Directors.

A distinctive feature of the project was the accountability of the professional staff not only to the county, but to a Refugee Board of Representatives, comprised of respected leaders from each of the ethnic groups. The representatives participated in decision-making, including the hiring of personnel, and the recruitment of students, both of which were crucial to the success of the project. They played an important role in gaining and maintaining community support for the program, and ensuring that the staff remained responsive to the needs of the communities served.

The curriculum was designed specifically to deal with people who were not literate in any language. This involved a lengthy phase-in of English classes for several months before vocational training began, and then use of both classes. In the view of the highland Lao people, this approach encouraged continued attendance, as students gradually acclimated themselves to the tasks and to workday schedules. Furthermore, English and electronics assembly classes were conducted in a social environment that was comfortable for the students, many of whom were friends and relatives.

Each ethnic group had a salaried bilingual teacher-aide from the group who served as a translator in the classroom and as a social adjustment specialist. The presence of teacher-aides in both English-language and vocational-training classes helped develop trust, and facilitate communication and learning in a personalized environment. They also taught students how to fill out job application forms and to prepare for interviews. In addition, they helped the teachers adjust to Iu Mien and Hmong lifeways. Finally, the teacher-aides worked as trouble-shooters - helping students cope with various resettlement crises that might interfere with class attendance. This proved to be a pivotal issue, since hospital crises, auto accidents, family disputes, evictions by landlords, and problems of small children at school threatened to wreak havoc with adult classroom attendance until students were taught how to cope with them in the cultural setting of the United States. This usually required that teacher-aides, as well as other staff, take them step by step through the process. To accomplish these tasks, the staff often worked extra hours.

The crisis with schoolchildren provides an example. Since Iu Mien and Hmong children understood no English, they never spoke at school. In a couple of cases they were labelled "mentally retarded." Because these children were from Laos, Lao-speaking interpreters were brought in to speak with them, but these people could not speak the highland languages. The children became discouraged and refused to attend school. When the teachers requested meetings with the parents of these children, neither side could understand one another. The parents skipped their own adult English and job-training classes to stay with their children. The Tribal Lao Training Project Coordinator checked and discovered the reasons for the absences. At the same time, the school districts contacted the project coordinator to ask for help. The teacher-aides served as translators at meetings between school personnel and the parents. The aides also helped in establishing a special program for the school children, and they continued to help with translation, applications, and implementation of these programs. Had this crisis not been resolved, the parents would never have returned to the Tribal Lao Training Program classes.

Because these people were being prepared for entry-level jobs, both husbands and wives needed to work to support their families. Indispensable for the recruitment of women students was the development of onsite childcare facilities and services, including help in placing children in low-cost childcare centers. The Iu Mien women especially were not accustomed to leaving their children in the care of others. The on-site childcare facility helped the women to make the transition to leaving their children. The project also provided bus passes, although this service and that of childcare were initially disrupted by bureaucratic delays and constraints imposed by the county.

The project coordinator, who also did job placement, provided the highland Lao peoples with intensive, personalized guidance in job-placement techniques. During the course of the year, she devoted a major part of her time to social adjustment issues and crises which affected the lives of the students.

The project aimed to train Iu Mien and Hmong people to take over tasks such as social adjustment services, job placement, and project management, in other words, to structure a transition to a completely refugee-run organization. Although the teacher-aides developed into highly skilled social adjustment specialists, the project was unsuccessful in training job-placement and project-management persons, in part because of the shortened length of the project.

Finally, the success of the project resulted from the Iu Mien and Hmong people themselves, who persevered in their determination to take destiny into their own hands, who chose the uncertainty of new jobs over the safe dependency of public assistance. As word spread about the project, some thirty-six individuals and organizations provided a variety of in-kind and in-service contributions.

Nevertheless, prospects for the future are not entirely rosy for the Iu Mien and Hmong of Santa Clara County. All working adults are employed in entry-level jobs with little security; many by choice are in electronics assembly, in which the initial wages are not higher than public assistance. The lack of diversity in occupations makes the Iu Mien and Hmong particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuations and layoffs which occur regularly in this industry. Although technically well-trained, many Iu Mien and Hmong are not yet adept at coping with layoffs and seeking new employment; they easily become discouraged.

For this reason, since the conclusion of the training year, the Tribal Lao Project has continued as a volunteer community service operation. It will assist in social adjustment, employment guidance, employment referrals, and cultural crisis counseling until the Hmong and Iu Mien of Santa Clara County no longer need these services.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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