Vietnamese Refugees Finish Long Journey to U.S.

More than 15 years ago, the United States government changed the rules on Vietnamese who were fleeing their country. Many got stranded in the Philippines while their refugee status was being reviewed. Now, the last of the Vietnamese who have been living in limbo are heading for the U.S.

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The Philippines remains under a state of emergency, four days after President Gloria Arroyo warned of a coup plot. Sixteen people were arrested, including several lawmakers and some former military officers. The islands have been a source of political instability for decades, but this is a story of people who find that country a haven.

For Vietnamese fleeing imprisonment or worse in their home country, it's been a way station on the road to a better life in the West. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

When Nowinti Comtu(ph) fled Vietnam, she had high hopes of starting a new life in the United States. Many Vietnamese from the losing side had done so after the war ended. And when Win arrived at the refugee camp here, with her parents and her two siblings, after a harrowing boat trip across the South China Sea, she was told their wait would not be long.

Ms. NOWINTI COMTU: Six months, and then after six months we can fly. But we have something problem (unintelligible), and that's why we stay here until now.

SULLIVAN: She and her family have stayed 16 years, caught in legal limbo in a country where they are forbidden by law to hold most jobs, own property, or vote--unwilling to return to Vietnam, and unable to go to the west.

Ms. COMTU: No country. No Philippines. No America. No real joy.

SULLIVAN: Nowin and her family are among an estimated 2,000 Vietnamese left here. They are some of the last unsettled Vietnamese refugees. A legacy of a war that ended more than three decades ago; stuck here, after western countries tightened their policies on Vietnamese fleeing their country in 1989. But for many, that wait is almost over, after the U.S. and other countries recently agreed to relax those policies.

Bruce Reed heads the Mineola Office of the International Organization for Migration.

Mr. BRUCE REED (Head of Mineola Office, International Organization for Migration): There are still groups in Cambodia, in the Mekong area, that are being resettled, that were part of the Vietnam War. But this is one of the last groups that remains. And so, finally, last year there was some agreement reached, and we are now putting an end to the issue of Vietnamese in the Philippines.

SULLIVAN: By the end of next month, Reed says, pretty much all of the remaining refugees will leave the Philippines, most of them bound for the U.S. By the end of today, Nywin Tecomb Tu(ph), will be one of them, along with her husband, Duk(ph), who she met here, and their two children, who were born here. Duk came to the Philippines in 1989 with his father, a former soldier in the South Vietnamese Army. They've been caught and imprisoned for trying to leave Vietnam once before.

After nearly two decades in limbo, eking out a living as a street vendor, Duk says he was shocked when he learned his family could go to America.

Mr. DUK TU: Before, I think they forgot already, we'll stay here for forever.

SULLIVAN: Now, he says, his children will have a chance at a normal life in a free country. His wife wants them to grow up to be doctors. Duk says all he wants is to be able to give them that chance.

Mr. TU: My idea is to give the opportunity, so when they grow up, they want to be the doctor, or to be the lawyer, or any opportunity they like, okay for them.

SULLIVAN: It's not been hard getting ready, Duk says. We have nothing to get rid of, since we don't own anything, except for a few clothes and some cooking utensils. The family has no savings, either. The birth of their daughter, two months ago, took are of that. But Duk says they've been promised $400.00 once they get to the U.S. to tide them over until they find work, and an aunt in Los Angeles will probably help, too.

Duk's wife is also happy they are leaving, but her joy is tempered by the agony of leaving her parents, who have not been approved, and she worries she may not see them again. The family has been together, stayed together, for more than 30 years. But her brother and sister left for the U.S. last week, and after she leaves today, her parents will be left behind in a place that is familiar, but not home.

Ms. NYWIN TECOMB TU: Yes, I am very happy they accept us to go. I'm very happy so much, but now I'm very sad because my mom and my father can't go. I like to leave, but I hope they will let my mom and my father go soon.

SULLIVAN: Her parents' case is under review. They may yet get to the place they've been dreaming of; a place their children and grandchildren will now know firsthand.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Manila.

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