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From Refugee Camps to Toxic Hot Spot: About the Laotian community in Richmond, CA

The Laotian population in the United States is a legacy of the Vietnam War. In support of South Vietnamese forces to eradicate communism in Southeast Asia, the U.S. government bombed, deployed troops, and sent millions of dollars in aid and resources to the region. Some Laotian ethnic minorities, most notably the Hmong, were recruited to fight on the side of the U.S. government. During the war, Laotians suffered years of chemical exposure from the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. In addition, as a result of 2 million tons of bombs dropped on Laos by the U.S. government, much of the agricultural land and forest area was destroyed, and water sources were poisoned. By the early 1970s, after 30 years of warfare, millions of Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese fled the environmental disasters and political repression in their home countries to live in crowded and unsanitary refugee camps in neighboring countries such as Thailand.

The influx of refugees to the United States was thought to be only a short-term consequence of the communist takeover of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 1975. Various political upheavals and natural disasters in Southeast Asia, however, spurred a massive increase of refugees and constituted subsequent waves of migration. Between 1975 and 1991, just over 1 million Southeast Asians had been resettled in the United States.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service required early refugees entering the country to register with one of the voluntary agencies. Contracted by the federal government to resettle the refugees and to find sponsors for them, these nine agencies were the United States Catholic Conference, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, International Rescue Committee, United Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, World Church Service, Tolstoy Foundation, American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees, American Council for Nationalities Services, and Travelers' Aid-International Social Services. Refugees could enter the United States once they found sponsors. Sponsors provided basic living necessities-food, clothing, and shelter-until refugees could support themselves and helped them in various ways to ease their entry into American society. Of these sponsors, 60 percent were families, 25 percent were churches and other organized groups, and the rest were individuals. The second wave of refugees relied heavily on family relatives already in the United States who could serve as sponsors.

Over 40 percent of all Laotians in the United States now reside in California. Other states with sizeable Laotian communities include Texas, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. Thrity seven percent of the Hmong community are located in the contiguous states of Minnesota and Wisconsin and represent the largest Asian ethnic group in the region. Within California, Laotian ethnic groups have resettled in metropolitan areas such as Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose.

Laotians residing in West County included only a few in the late 1970s but has grown to several thousand today. In 1979, nine families living in West Contra Costa County were comprised of Mien, Lao, Khmu and Hmong ethnic groups. The small number of families necessitated that tribal groups work together, and they subsequently formed Tribal Unity, an organization to provide resettlement support services to other Laotians who would later settle in the area. Arriving in 1975, LOP staff organizer Torm Nompraseurt was among the first Laotians to settle in West County. He asserts that resettlement agencies relocated refugees in cities such as Richmond and San Pablo, because they had the most affordable housing in a particular region. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 3,321 Laotians lived in Contra Costa County in 1989. Community leaders argue that the census of Laotian families in the County is a severe undercount and estimate that the community numbers around 10,000 individuals today. According to Nompraseurt and other community leaders, the Mien community is the largest of the six ethnic groups in the County, followed by Lao, Khmu, Thaidam, Lue, and Hmong.

One third of all Laotians in the United States live in poverty and receive public assistance income, two to four times higher than rates for the general U.S. population compared to any other Asian immigrant group. Southeast Asian refugees including Laotians have far larger proportions of people from agrarian backgrounds with lower educational levels. In West County, of the adult Laotian population ages 25 years and over, 40 percent live below the poverty level, and 46 percent have less than a fifth grade education. Nationally, only one third of the refugees from Laos were high school graduates and about the same number had less than a fifth-grade education. Consequently, in the United States, Laotians frequently work in hazardous, low-income jobs, and 44 percent of the working population is employed in the low-skilled jobs sector as operators, fabricators, and laborers.

Laotian youth in West County attend public schools with increasing problems of gang activity and a chronic lack of resources for essential items such as updated textbooks, computers, clean and functioning bathrooms, and after-school programs. School expulsion and dropout patterns of Laotian students suggest that schools are failing to meet the needs of API immigrant students. Many of these students face a number of pressures such as dealing with urban poverty, violence, and environmental injustice in their community, being undervalued and marginalized as young people of color, and balancing obligations to supplement their family's income by working while going to school. In many ways, they are abandoned by the schools and in some cases turn instead to youth gangs and criminal activities that lead them to become entrenched in the juvenile and criminal justice system.

The U.S. government now refuses to acknowledge full responsibility for the needs of this community and has exacerbated their plight by eliminating welfare, affirmative action, and bilingual education. Forced to leave an agricultural society, where the majority have little formal education, and to live in an urban industrial environment, the Laotian community is left particularly vulnerable to the traps of urban poverty: sub-standard housing, dangerous workplaces, and unhealthy neighborhoods.

Due to their status as poor, racial minorities, Laotians and other people of color in West County are disproportionately impacted by petroleum-based industries. The 1990 U.S. Census figures for Richmond and San Pablo, two cities heavily impacted by the industrial facilities in Contra Costa County, indicate that people of color make up the majority, 68.0 percent, of the total population. Asians and Pacific Islanders comprise 12.6 percent of the total population, African Americans 38.2 percent. Whites 31.6 percent. Latinos 16.5 percent, American Indians 0.7, and other 0.4 percent. In the state of California, Contra Costa County has the highest amount of hazardous materials per capita.

The Laotian community in West County faces a multitude of toxic exposure. The community attempts to live a sustainable lifestyle in a very unsustainable environment. Laotian families often practice subsistence fishing from the local piers and may be consuming fish at a higher rate than the recommended amount of no more than twice a month. Health officials warn that fish from the San Francisco Bay are contaminated with PCBs, mercury, dioxins, and pesticides, but their efforts to notify the immigrant population are ineffective for the Laotian community since few are literate in their own language or in English.

Another source of exposure unique to this community is contaminants in the soil where they grow vegetables. As Laotians move into low-cost housing areas, they also bring with them their agrarian heritage from Laos. Many revitalize dilapidated public housing and unmanaged backyards with their communal gardens. Unfortunately, West County is also the site of many old industries and a number of Laotians may be gardening on top of sites where there are high levels of lead, other metals, and toxic chemicals.

This toxic exposure is exacerbated by linguistic and cultural isolation and a lack of access to information, services, and decision-makers. Effectively cut off from most major forms of mass communication, approximately 52 percent of Laotians in the United States live in "linguistically-isolated households," meaning that no person age fourteen or over in a household speaks English only or very well. Laotians have over 62 dialects. Most are from preliterate cultures. In Laos, except for the lowland Lao, who were the most urbanized Laotians, the other tribes did not have functioning written languages until the Vietnam War.

Politically and economically marginalized, the Laotian community in West County is largely segregated from the larger population. Despite this, Laotian residents maintain strong ethnic and community networks and persevere through forming ethnic and clan associations, other service organizations, and religious churches and temples. These associations are essential and hold the community together in a foreign and oftentimes hostile setting. LOP is one vehicle where Laotians in West County can engage in activities that address the root causes of social, economic, and environmental problems by leading campaigns that shift power relations and work towards systemic social change.

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