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Involvement of Montagnard Children

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The Montagnards were perhaps our bravest and most loyal ally in the Vietnam War. There is no account of the countless American lives they saved and for this we owe them a debt of lasting gratitude. Montagnard was the appellation given to these people by the French and it merely means "mountain people." The French Colonial Regime used this term to describe several groups of indigenous people that they encountered in the mountains of the central highlands of Vietnam . They also used it to describe all the mountain people they met throughout Indochina which sometimes leads to confusion (Michaud, 2000). These inhabitants of the central highlands were roughly similar to our early Native American population. Their arrival in the area largely predates the Vietnamese who moved from China centuries later. They were considered tribal or loincloth people and their history is one of enduring discrimination at the hands of the Vietnamese majority. Many Vietnamese referred to them as Mois or savages. Even today there still exists an element of ill-feeling between these two groups of recent immigrants (Pang, 1990).

In the past, they often lived communally as an extended family in a style similar to the Iroquois longhouses in America . In marriage, the man joins the woman's family, adopts her name, and moves to the bride's village. However, they are a patriarchal society similar to other Asian cultures. Some people today find the term Montagnard to be a pejorative so the term Dega people is also used. However, Dega is roughly similar to mountain people in the Rhade language and is not universally used. None of the Montagnards I have encountered object to the term and they look upon it with pride distinguishing them from other Southeast Asian students. In fact, it is a term that Helen Evans first heard in 1985 when the first Montagnards finally arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina .

Helen Evans is a missionary who served from 1951-1974 with the Koho people in Vietnam near Da Lat. She has witnessed a lot in her years of Christian work including the death of several friends who were captured and murdered by the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive (Hefley, 1974). She was on leave and scheduled to return to Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975. She is still a focal point of the Montagnard Community in Charlotte and these first religious services were held in her house before the Montagnard Christian Church was built near West Mecklenburg High School . She has spent the vast part of her life with thee people and has a deep admiration and love for them. She leads a Spartan religious life and is devoted to assisting them. She has helped educate me and fill in the missing gaps and memories of the past. She and a village elder, K'Sang Bonyo, have assisted in presentations regarding their Vietnam experiences at school. The latter spent 17 years fighting the Communists including the last ten in the jungle. He also serves as a go-between with our students and their families because he speaks English, Koho, Rhade, M'Nong, and Jarai.

The Montagnards experienced a long and arduous journey to get to North Carolina . When Saigon fell they were left behind and immediately treated with discrimination by the Vietnamese. Many had to flee into the bush to escape imprisonment, sterilization, torture, and death. They were not only despised for supporting the United States war effort but also for the Christian beliefs. The first groups of freedom fighters had to fight their way across Vietnam to Cambodia where they then had to battle the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot on their way to sanctuary in Thailand . It was there in 1985, that Doi's letter (one of the elders) finally reached Don Scott who had worked with them in Vietnam . Other Americans, including Helen, had long feared either that they were dead or their lives would be imperiled if they attempted correspondence. Don Scott immediately flew to Thailand and met them at the Site II refugee camp. Upon returning home, he initiated the long process to bring them to their new home in North Carolina . In his efforts, he received the support of the United States Special Forces (Green Berets) who had served with them, the Catholic Church, Jewish Relief, and the Christian Missionary Alliance Church (Case & Taylor, 2005).

One of the issues that delayed the Montagnard emigration to the United States was their insistence that they not be split up. Other refugee groups, most notably the Hmongs, had been divided so as not to put a strain on the resources of their new communities

(Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 1997). Finally, after a great deal of maneuvering, these freedom fighters were moved to a processing center in the Philippines . From there, the first 200 Montagnards came to North Carolina and consisted of mostly men, but a few young women. All were soldiers, but they could not return to Vietnam nor did they know what had happened to their families. They were settled in Charlotte , Raleigh , and Greensboro where they would have the support of the church, and be in the proximity of Ft. Bragg which is home to the United States Special Forces and a significant retired military population who still offer their support and long time friendship. Due to its centrality, they continue to meet in Greensboro for all their significant festivals and events. The Special Forces have purchased land in Asheboro , constructed a park, and are starting a museum replete with a longhouse experience and gardens where the Montagnards, or "Yards" as GI's referred to them affectionately, can feel at home and hold their War Remembrance Day in May.

After the first influx of Montagnard refugees in 1986, there was increasing pressure on the Vietnamese government to allow emigration for various people who wanted to leave. The ODP (Orderly Departure Program) was created between the United States and Vietnam . Amerasians, who were the offspring of liaisons between GI's and Vietnamese and thus persona non grata in their homeland, were the first priority. The second priority was to bring to the United States those individuals and their families who had worked with our forces during the Vietnam War. France also helped in settling Vietnamese refugees who were mostly members of the Roman Catholic faith. After a great deal of pressure from Veterans groups, others were allowed to emigrate including the Montagnards of 1992-1996 and 2002. The latter group had fled to Cambodia after a period of political unrest and included mostly M'Nongs who lived close to that border. Today some family members are able to get out on an individual basis if one's family can go through the arduous process of set forth by bureaucracy to claim them.

The Vietnamese Communist government has never held the various ethnic groups including Montagnards in high esteem. On the one hand, they promised to continue regional autonomy to placate their desires, but they continued the Chinese Communist mode, adapted from the Soviet Union , of repopulation and squeezing them from their traditional homelands. They considered them to be at the lowest stage of economic and social development and very primitive. In order to break their hold on their homelands and reach the superior level of the coastal Vietnamese, lowlanders were relocated to the highlands, education was either denied them or made too expensive, Christianity was repressed, and in extreme cases imprisonment, torture, and sterilization was utilized (Dowdy, 1964). Bad habits need to be broken and adherence to doctrine and conformity to Communist thinking was necessary. The tribal people gradually became minorities in their own land and continued to have worsening situations with the new leadership where they lived (Michaud, 2000). This steady growth of ill will caused the newest arrivals (2002), that only had vague knowledge and a tenuous connection with the United States , to flee their homes in Vietnam in search of freedom (Timko, 2002). To this group, the United States was an elusive dream and a concept as much as a place. Most of the newest immigrants had little connection to the war and could not even locate the United States on a map. The only memory to some of them was that we had abandoned their country in 1975 (Timko, 2002).

The Montagnards in our school represent several different tribes, had differing arrival circumstances (three main arrival groups – 1986, 1992-1996, and 2002), and do not necessarily speak the same language. Most of their parents do not speak English, so communication with them on behalf of their children is difficult. In order to reach them about important matters, one would have to send a letter, which they place in high esteem. They then find an elder, priest, or minister to translate the message. However, one drawback to this practice is that for routine matters, Montagnards and other parents of Southeast Asian students look upon correspondence about mundane matters to be a possible sign of incompetence on the part of school officials (Huang, 1993).

One key to understand Southeast Asian students is that these people are vastly different ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. A common mistake of teachers is to paint them with a broad brush (Liu & Li, 1996). It would be roughly the same as expecting Germans, French, Russians, Irish, and English to have a great deal of understanding, similarity, as well as empathy for one another. The one common denominator is that most of these students had fathers, grandfathers, or uncles that fought along side our forces during the Vietnam War. The different languages they speak are a good starting point.

The Vietnamese language is classified as Mon-Khmer and belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family of languages. It is a tonal language with five basic tones that give words that are virtually spelled the same different meanings which causes confusion with improper inflection. Laotian students speak a language similar to Thai that belongs to the Kam-Tai family of languages which is also prevalent in parts of Southwestern China . Hmongs students speak a language of the family, Hmong-Mien, which is also a tonal language utilizing a frequent doubling of vowels (National Geographic, 1999).

The Montagnards are split into two basic language families. The Koho, Bahnar, and M'Nong are from the Mon-Khmer language group, and the Rhade and Jarai languages are from the Malayo-Polynesian language group. Our first students were Koho or Rhade, but the more recent arrivals have included Jarai and M'Nong (2002 group). None of the students at school speak Vietnamese, but most of their parents do. Vietnamese is a tonal language and has no relationship to the Montagnard languages though some words have been borrowed back and forth. In addition, there are six different Koho dialects depending on what village one is from. In the Sre tribe, males are designated with K and females use Ka. In Vietnam , it was more common to find last names in the larger cities, but in the villages it was unnecessary (similar to Europe prior to the late Middle Ages). In the Rhade or Jarai languages, it is common for females to use the H designation and the males to use Y (pronounced Yee). Newly arriving M'Nongs also use H for females and Y for males, and sometimes Jarai use H for females but do not normally use Y for males. The Vietnamese further muddled the situation by their misunderstanding of Montagnard languages, causing a similar situation faced by immigrants who came to America through Ellis Island (Case & Taylor, 2005).

Another key would be their religious practices. Many of the Southeast Asian students were converts to Christianity which caused them further discrimination. However, some groups, chiefly Laotian students, remain Buddhist and others still retain some elements of animistic beliefs. Spiritual practice further divides them. Although the first group of Montagnards held a special brotherhood by surviving ten years in the bush, they were divided by their allegiance to the Christian Missionary Alliance Church or their practice of Roman Catholicism. Also, Catholic Montagnards in Charlotte rarely go to the recently built Vietnamese Catholic Church where they do not feel especially welcome (Gee, 2004).

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Getting Personal

In a more personal manner, the primary author recalls characteristics of six Montagnard students he teaches or has become acquainted with at his high school of employment. The first participant, Neo K, is a young man who is nearly 19 and should graduate next year. He was born in Vietnam and came here with his grandparents when he was eight years old. His mother and father remain in Vietnam and he has not seen them since he was eight years old. The Catholic Church sponsored his refugee group in the second wave of Montagnard admissions to the United States in 1996. In a similar fashion to other early Montagnard refugees, his grandfather fought with U.S. forces during the Second Indochina War and was sadly left behind. His grandparents claimed Neo and his brother as sons so they could enjoy a better life here. Neo speaks Koho and English and his grandparents speak Koho which is the language of the home and Vietnamese. Neo had some brief schooling in Vietnam , but he does not remember much of it. He still harbors resentment that he was held back in school here because they felt he was behind. Neo has adjusted relatively well in school and he associates with students of various ethnic groups. Ironically, he has little or no association with the more recent Montagnard groups in school (mostly M'nong) because he says he cannot understand them. His goal is to graduate and find a job, but he has some interest in community college.

The second participant, Thiu Ka, is a 16 year old Koho and was resettled here by the Catholic Church. She arrived here when she was five years old. Her father fought with the Green Berets during the war. She speaks Koho, English, and Spanish, has adjusted well to high school, and is an honor roll student in her junior year. She belongs to the International Club, will try out for sports next year, and hopes to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte or Central Piedmont Community College upon graduation. Her parents speak Koho and Vietnamese and the former is the language at home. She explained that older people in the Montagnard community still retain an animosity towards the Vietnamese due to past discrimination and the Communist takeover. She and the Catholic Koho attend St. Patrick's Catholic Church and though she has been once, they would not go to St. Joseph 's Vietnamese Church due to past ill feelings. Teachers must be aware of these historical conflicts and past discrimination in order to better understand differing experiences in the classroom (Pang, 1990). Thiu has assimilated rather well and is more like a typical American teenager.

The third participant, Mat Y, is a 16 year old ninth grader. Contrary to Neo's opinion, this young lad spoke very good English and was extremely gregarious and less reticent than other Montagnards. He is M'nong and one of the more recent arrivals gaining entry in 2002. He lived in a longhouse in a small village near the Cambodian border and never was able to attend school in Vietnam due to the discriminatory practices of the communist government. His favorite subject is art and he likes to learn new words. He does not like mathematics which belies the commonly held notion that all Asians are "whiz kids" in the subject (Feng, 1994; New York City Task Force, 1989; Pang, 1990; Park, 2000). He said that he would like more help in school and sometimes feels ignored by teachers who think he is doing well. He loves sports, especially soccer and volleyball, and would like to play soccer at the school, but he seemed apprehensive about doing this Lieu & Li, 1992). His father works and his mother stays at home and works a lot in her garden. He is very interested in cars, is already tinkering with them and would like to be a mechanic someday. He introduced me to his brothers who were in elementary school and they were very engaging young kids who both say they love school. Mat and his family were proud that they were good students (Huang, 1993; Schwartz, 1995; Park, 2000). Mat also offered some sad commentary on several former students in the neighborhood who were forced to drop out of school.

The fourth participant, Djo H, is a senior who sadly was only able to get a certificate of attendance. She is married and due to have a baby any day. There is still a critical shortage of females in the community which is a cause of the early marriages and child birth similarly found in the Hmong communities (Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 1997). She is a Jarai and very shy, probably due to her low level of English skill. She said that she loved mathematics and her health classes. She had no formal schooling in Vietnam , and since her arrival four years ago, has not had much opportunity to catch up. She is a delightful girl, who rather than going back to school, would rather stay at home and raise her family. However, someday she might want to work in a hospital or become a nurse.

The fifth participant, Quy Y is a M'Nong student who recently graduated. He was part of the 2002 group and received only limited schooling in Vietnam . He claims to have only gone to first and second grade. Similar to most teenagers he was ecstatic about graduation. He plans on going to Central Piedmont Community College and later to attend a state university. His friends were very proud of him, because as Mat Y explained, that they have heard college is hard and many of them feel that it is beyond them and only an option for American students. He seems particularly well adjusted and achieved a great deal of education in a short time proving that it is possible to catch up.

The sixth participant, Linh Dagout, is an 18 year old Koho sophomore who is a recent arrival. She is a very shy Catholic student who is believed to be married. However, another trait of these refugees is that they attempt to disguise their personal situation so as not to be embarrassed (Liu & Li, 1996). She is a very conscientious student and a hard worker, but has missed numerous days of school in the past two years probably due to family obligations. She speaks Koho and rudimentary English, and the language of the home is Koho or Vietnamese. Due to her age, it might be difficult to keep her in school until graduation and there is a risk of her dropping out. She is a bright girl, but the ESL teachers are exasperated in their attempts to help her.


A School Leader's Guide To Improving The Achievement, Assimilation, and Involvement of Montagnard Children

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Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . factcouraud. (2007, May 22). Involvement of Montagnard Children. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License