Refugee processing center keeps welcoming Amerasians from Vietnam Camp in Philippines an Asian Ellis Island


MORONG, Philippines -- The boat people from Vietnam were the first huddled masses to arrive, joined by waves of Cambodians, Laotians and a sprinkling of Hmong longing to breathe free.

And now it was Tran Thi Minh Chau's turn, packing her things one afternoon recently, ready to leave with her family in the morning for the United States.

Her children are Amerasians, offspring of U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, the last wave of Indochinese refugees moving through a sprawling, sun-drenched camp in the Philippines that has become a kind of Asian Ellis Island.

Ms. Chau and her children were clutching U.S. government placement forms as they left that listed "Philadelphia, Pa." as their final destination.

"After today, no more trouble," Ms. Chau said nervously, using the English she learned here over the last six months in a place where signs are all still in four languages and faces speak, often hauntingly, of a war now more than 20 years old.

It is hard to believe they are still coming through, Amerasian children turned young Amerasian adults. But the State Department estimates they will continue arriving for an additional two years, bringing to about 400,000 the total number of refugees coming through this camp.

The current crop of Amerasians is possibly the most vulnerable group of refugees brought to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center for six months of English classes, cultural orientation and basic job application skills -- the only Southeast Asian refugees still receiving such training.

Many will end up on welfare in U.S. ghettos soon after their arrival, the latest in a long line of Vietnam-era victims.

"One can say that there's some element of hope for all of them," said Don Ronk, 54, an American who worked with them as toddlers in Vietnam and adults here in the Philippines.

Ellis Island looks out on the Statue of Liberty. The Philippine Refugee Processing Center has been endowed with an array of humbler monuments -- Buddhist temples left behind by the Laotians and the Cambodians, wooden junks that sailed here from Vietnam across the South China Sea.

When Mr. Ronk first came in 1983 to this place, 125 miles northwest of Manila on the barren Bataan Peninsula, the population was 18,000, half Cambodian, half Vietnamese -- almost twice today's population of 10,000.

His Vietnamese language skills came rushing back. So did a torrent of memories from his days in Vietnam.

Mr. Ronk was a refugee coordinator in Saigon and Da Nang in the late 1960s, when the war at full tilt was displacing hundreds of thousands from their villages -- and producing tens of thousands of Amerasian children.

"In the back alleys and whatnot, they were everywhere," Mr. Ronk recalled in a recent interview.

Seeing them here in camp as teen-agers all those years later filled him with a sense of pride in his country. He believed in 1983 that the United States was finally taking responsibility for the mess it made in Vietnam.

Now he is not so sure, despite passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1988, legislation that will ultimately pave the way for more than 30,000 Amerasians and 90,000 immediate family members to emigrate.

"With Amerasians," Mr. Ronk said, "there's an essential question of age -- what you anticipate happening to a kid who is 12 or 13, vs. what happens to them when they're 22 or 23."

When they were younger, he said, they went to the States, enrolled immediately in school and quite often became American kids.

But now that most Amerasians are in their 20s, he said, assimilation in the United States becomes much more difficult, especially since most have been poorly educated in Vietnam; 40 percent are illiterate in Vietnamese.

"Eighty percent of all Amerasians for the last couple of years have and will end up at the sleaziest end of American society -- there's no question in my mind," Mr. Ronk said. "They're sending 23-year-olds with no schooling in Vietnam into a society where they have almost no hope of catching up. They have nowhere else to go."

Are they better off in U.S. ghettos than they were as social outcasts back in Vietnam?

"I doubt it, at this point, I really doubt it," Mr. Ronk said, especially since "the follow-through in the States is so insubstantial."

But Mr. Ronk is not knocking the processing center, which he left last year to write a book on his experiences with Amerasians. The center, he said, offers them a critical six months "to unwind after leaving Vietnam and find out who they are."

The center is not perfect, he said, but someday, when all 400,000 refugees have trooped through on their way to the United States, it will be recognized as a crowning success.

"There is," he said, "just no question in my mind."

Few Amerasians ever leave the camp so certain, haunted by a need to know that grows stronger the closer they come to the United States: "Can you help me find my father?"

There is a poignancy to their quest.

Most of them will never even come close, possessing nothing more than a first name -- John, Steve, Dave -- and sometimes a hometown -- Detroit, Philadelphia, Junction City.

That they continue searching with so little to go on is a sign, Mr. Ronk believes, of utter naivete.

"They don't have any idea," he said, "how big the United States is or how many people there are."

Do Phat Cuoc, 23, as it happens, might actually succeed. He has a photocopy of his father's birth certificate and the original paternity affidavit his father signed at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on Aug. 22, 1969, as well as several U.S. addresses and a slew of photographs.

Phan Van Cuong, 24, is far more typical. He knows his father's name -- "Larry." That's it.

Sophie Derieux, a strikingly pretty girl whose American genes predominate, falls somewhere in the middle. She clings to several old photographs and a California address, and, of course, there is her surname, that of her American father.

"I just want to see him," Ms. Derieux said. "I don't worry if he gives me a car or a house. I want to see my father, because for a long time I don't see him -- I miss him so much."

Tran Thi Minh Chau was packing her things, ready to leave in the morning for Philadelphia.

If any family illustrates the difficulties Amerasians often face in the United States, it is hers.

Ms. Chau, 41, was born in Saigon in 1950 to a Vietnamese woman and a black soldier from Africa fighting for the French against the Vietnamese Communists.

Her features are Vietnamese, her skin the rich, dark brown of Africa.

Three of her five children are Amerasians in their 20s -- one the son of a white American, one the son of a Hispanic American, one the daughter of a black American.

Whom will they identify with in the United States? And who will identify with them?

Ms. Chau wasn't sure. She did not, after all, even know where Philadelphia is.

"Maybe Vietnamese people in America won't like me," she said. "Maybe black people in America won't like me. But everything in America, I think, is better than in Vietnam."

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