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Aiding Asian refugees: a little understanding goes a long way. `They think we come here just to enjoy . . . to collect welfare. They just don't understand'

Kieng Kim has a bullet hole in his heel. For Mr. Kim, a Cambodian refugee who fled his homeland in 1979, the wound is a small reminder of the war-ravaged past. But for Americans, he says, it tells a history lesson that could help ease the crime and violence that has shadowed the success of the nation's 1.1 million Southeast Asian refugees.

Perched on the edge of a couch in his family's small apartment, Kim explains that attacking Khmer Rouge troops shot at him as he tore out of a camp near the Thailand border. Unlike many others there, he made it to the jungle -- and the relative safety of Thailand -- alive.

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``They don't know anything about our history,'' says Kim, referring to the small band of townspeople who harass -- and sometimes harm -- the Cambodian refugees who have settled here. ``We escaped suffering, we escaped from killing,'' he says. ``They think we come here just to enjoy. They think we come here to collect welfare. People just don't understand.''

Indeed, the anti-Asian animosity that has flared up around the United States is often tinged with misunderstanding. It's not just the established citizens, who occasionally express confusion and resentment at the new immigrants pouring into their communities. And it's not just local law-enforcement authorities, who sometimes fail to sympathize with the customs and concerns of the Southeast Asians. It's also the recent refugees themselves, who often have trouble adapting to the foreign ways of American society.

That's why the fight against such crime and violence has centered on mutual education, says Wallace Warfield, associate director of the US Justice Department's Community Relations Service.

Healing conflict between groups is largely left to individual communities. But handling the nitty-gritty details of specific crises usually falls on the shoulders of Mr. Warfield and his corps of conflict-resolution specialists.

Their first incident with Southeast Asian refugees came in 1979, when an industrious Vietnamese fisherman was killed in a fishing-rights dispute on the Gulf coast of Texas.

Aside from helping established residents cope with the refugees, Warfield says, ``we did some cultural-awareness training with police. And we had to break down the fear of police in the minds of the refugees, to whom the police stood for a very negative symbol in Vietnam.''

Working with the image and attitude of police is crucial, says Joan Weiss, director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence. She says only a few cities, including Boston and New York, have forces dealing with racial conflict.

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The Texas incident began as a dispute over economic territory. But like so many conflicts with Southeast Asians, ``the reactions that people take to it cleave along classic racial-hatred lines,'' says Warfield. ``People begin to label the newcomers. . . . They must find something different about them in order to make it more comfortable to attack them.''

Local Texas fishermen built up all sorts of myths to explain why the Vietnamese refugees could accumulate new cars and expensive goods, when they themselves were just scraping by, he says. Many assumed that the refugees -- if not involved in illegal activity -- were at least getting a free ride from the government. Some Army veterans were even convinced that they were Viet Cong -- enemies from the Vietnam war.

Members of the US Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) showed locals that the refugees were not getting a free ride. Efren Martinez of the Community Relations Service helped defuse the volatile situation by explaining how the refugees' tight families, hard work, and frugal living enabled them to buy expensive items. The most potent potion: a simple explanation of their war-torn history.

Ratha Yem, who provides a crucial link between Boston's Cambodian community and the local police, says he thinks most of the problems stem from ignorance: ``There's a lot of misperception stemming from the Vietnam war. But we were as much victims as your GIs.''

In areas around the country with high refugee populations, efforts have been stepped up to explain how the refugees were forced to leave their countries. Sileap K. Suos, a Cambodian teacher in Revere, succinctly sums up the effect of an educational film on her school: ``There is no spitting anymore.''

In some cities, refugees from the various Asian countries have banded together despite their vast -- and often bitter -- differences. One such group, the Boston Asian Refugees Coalition, struggled after being formed last winter but has been promised funds from the ORR.

On a neighborhood level, it sometimes takes a strong community figure to lend support. In Revere, that figure is store owner Jerry Godfrey. ``Without Jerry, we all fall down,'' says Sun Mam, assistant manager of Godfrey's small grocery store. As he speaks, a bright-eyed young Cambodian girl leads her elderly grandmother over to get her welfare check cashed.

On a national level, however, many people say they think much more needs to be done. ``An overall strategy hasn't even been planned, much less implemented,'' says Stewart Kwoh, director of the Asian-Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. ``The Community Relations Service [is] resolved to . . . address crises. But they're not equipped to get to the roots of the problems. They are fundamental problems -- and no one group can do it.''

One ray of hope: a nationwide forum sponsored by the National Immigration and Refugee Forum last Friday. Mr. Kwoh hopes that by bringing together all inner-city residents, they can ``have a substantial cross section of leadership . . . to put enough pressure on governmental or public agencies to give the resources.''

Second of two articles. The first ran yesterday.

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