Featured photo: Risuin Ksor and his father, Moeun Puih are Montagnard and have lived in Greensboro since 2002 when they emigrated from Cambodia. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
They’ve been living in Guilford County for 30 years, but many in Greensboro still don’t know who they are or why they’re here.
The Montagnard consists of various group of indigenous peoples who hail from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. According to the Montagnard Dega Association of Greensboro, there are more than 12,000 Montagnard people living in the United States alone, with most of them living in North Carolina.
Risuin Ksor and his father, Moeun Puih, live in Greensboro.
“We’ve been living in Greensboro since 2002,” says Ksor, who translates for his soft-spoken father.
As with many other Montagnard individuals who have made their way to the United States in the last three decades, Puih has a story rife with struggle brought upon by the Vietnam War.
Warriors left behind after the war
The first wave of Montagnard immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1980s came as refugees. During the war, hundreds of Montagnard men allied with American forces to fight, but after the US pulled out in the early ’70s, the Montagnard soldiers were left behind in a war-torn country with nowhere to live. In the years that followed, many who had helped the US Special Forces fled Vietnam for Cambodia and Thailand, oftentimes fighting for survival against the Communist forces.
Puih was not a soldier, but he remembers the part he played in the war as an interpreter for the United Nations. During those years on the run, he says he helped close to 600 Montagnard people flee to Cambodia where he and his family also became refugees, spending three years in a camp.
Now, according to several estimates, Greensboro serves as the largest Montagnard community in the world outside of Vietnam. But many Montagnards say they’re still struggling despite their numbers in the city. One of the biggest problems for the community is access to information, Ksor says.
“There’s so much misinformation,” says Ksor, who was a Bonner Scholar at Guilford College and now works as a contractor for the United Nations. “Sometimes people are getting information from their kids, and the kids are getting it from social media…. To get accurate information, you have to know the right networks.”
Ha Tong, the community liaison for the Montagnard Dega Association in Greensboro, says that getting accurate information can be difficult for many in the community, particularly those who are older.
“There are plenty of resources if you speak English; it’s easier for you,” she says. “But for these folks, it’s not possible for them; that is a problem.”
Because of the lack of consistent information, Tong says that many in the community have been hesitant to get the vaccine. When the vaccines first started rolling out, she says that they were faced with a shortage which gave time for rumors to spread amongst the members.
“They were getting wrong information about the vaccine and then a lot of people called to say they didn’t want to get it,” she says.
To combat that, the association has put on several virtual community meetings where they invited experts and doctors to speak on the vaccine. But that only works for people who have access to the internet. For many elders in the community, just being able to do basic things like shopping or figuring out their healthcare can be difficult.
“One of the needs we see in the community are with the elders, especially the ones who don’t have family,” says Liana Adrong, administrative coordinator for the association. “Many came in 1998 or 1996 and they didn’t marry or bring families. They need help reading the paper or making doctor’s appointments or help with transportation.”
The pandemic has made things more difficult.
Before, volunteers could visit individuals in person to help with daily tasks but much of that help had to be moved to online video calls or to phone check-ins, says Tong. Plus, the association is short-staffed.
“We are pretty small,” says Adrong. “We don’t have a lot of funding, therefore, sometimes we are just overworked.”
To help with that, the association recently won a $100,000 grant which will help the community rebound from the pandemic. This will hopefully aid in hiring more staff like H’thu Nie, who starts her new job at the association this week.
The next generation of the Montagnard community
Nie, 22-years-old, immigrated to the United States from Vietnam with her family a little over a decade ago. Unlike some of the other families who came to North Carolina seeking refuge, she says her family immigrated here because of the increased opportunities she and her siblings would have.
Nie became the first in her family to get a college degree when she graduated from UNCG this past week with a bachelors in human development and family studies. She says she’ll be working as a civic engagement specialist for the association to help community members get more involved in politics. She also signed up for an interpretation course through the association to hone her skills in Rhade, one of the many languages spoken by Montagnard people. Because even though she is Montagnard, she says she realized there were gaps in her fluency.
“I want to learn more medical terminology and be able to interact in a professional way,” says Nie, who often translates for her mother.
Once she hones her skills a bit more, Nie hopes to help work the phone lines to communicate with elders in the community who don’t speak English. She says that younger Montagnard individuals like her can have a harder time maintaining the language because they were either born in the United States or moved here at such a young age. But, she says, staying immersed in the language helps her feel more connected to her culture.
“It makes me feel like I’m connected to my homeland,” she says. “That’s where my roots are. Even though I’ve lived here for a decent amount of time, I haven’t forgotten my own culture and my language and where I came from.”
One of the things that the new grant funding may help with is creating a buddy system for younger Montagnard people to help the elders in the community.
“They would do home visits once a week or read their mail or meet them at their doctors’ appointments,” Adrong says. “It’s kind of a buddy system that we are talking about.”
And the system, if successful, could be used for all refugee communities in Greensboro, not just the Montagnards.
Really, the future of the Montagnard community, rests in the hands of the younger generations, says Adrong.
“We want to train young Montagnard people to have leadership skills,” she says. “And I think doing this kind of work will give them that.”
Tong, who immigrated to the US in 2009, says that there can be a divide amongst the younger and older generations but that through conversations and activism, the community be more unified.
“There can be a sense of connecting back between the two generations and it can motivate us to speak up for our people and speak for the people who cannot speak for themselves,” she says. “We are being the voice of the unheard.”
Nie says that since coming to the US 12 years ago, her family hasn’t been back to Vietnam. Neither have Ksor or Puih. Some families, like Puih’s, still face threats of persecution while others simply haven’t had the time or funding. But one thing remains clear: For most of the Montagnard people here, Greensboro has become home. And to really thrive, community members say they need recognition as well as more resources.
Nie says having more interpreters could help elders in the community while Tong notes that more funding would help the association organize events and programs. And after 30 years, many feel it’s more than past time to be seen and heard.
“We don’t want much, says Puih, who keeps his faded United Nations worker card in his wallet still. “We want to be honored for the things we’ve done for the American community. We want resources so we can be one with the community. We don’t want to be separate; we want to be one with the Greensboro community.”
To learn more about Greensboro’s Montagnard community, visit montagnardda.org.