Living in America

Meet the neighbors

"There's a nostalgia in rural America that has a Norman Rockwell mystique," Fennelly says. "In Minnesota, that means to be white, and Scandinavian or German. The rapid change in these communities is shocking."

Fennelly says that racism fuels a sort of double standard in these small towns. "The stuff I'll hear from people, especially the blue-collar white workers in the factories, will just make my jaw drop," she says. "I'll hear rants about how all the Somalis and Mexicans do is come in and take their jobs. Then someone will say, 'Yeah, but my brother-in-law is Mexican, and he's a good guy.' It's as if they don't see the connection between the perception and how it really affects their lives."

And the political climate across the country hardly makes it better. Elizabeth Boyle, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies Somalis, notes that since 9/11, Somali Muslims have lived in fear. "What I see, now more than ever, is a desire among African immigrants to become citizens," Boyles says. "But it's harder now for that to happen than it's ever been."

There's no doubt that race and wartime anti-Islamic propaganda come into play. For instance, while the number of refugees is down across the board, Russians are largely immune from post-9/11 wrath. "The Russians, by and large, have had an easier time of late," concedes Gayle Saeks of Jewish Family Service, a nonprofit that resettles Russian Jews. "Here in Minnesota, the assumption is that they are just like everyone else because they look like everyone else. That ends when they open their mouths."

 

Bunnavith Heng's father, an academic at a Cambodian university, was slain by the Pol Pot regime in 1975 after it seized control of the country following the withdrawal of American forces. In 1979 there was a regime change, and Pol Pot fell in favor of a puppet government that was, if less bloody, no more democratic. Bunnavith, along with his mother and four siblings, fled for Thailand, where it was said the Americans had set up a Red Cross camp.

For three days and three nights, the five of them moved through the jungles of Cambodia seeking refuge. They paid guides with gold and diamonds Bunnavith's father had stashed. For more than a year the family lived in the camp and waited its turn to fill out papers seeking sponsorship through a "third country"--Australia, England, or, best of all, America.

The Hengs came piecemeal to the United States. Bunnavith arrived by boat in March of 1982 with his two sisters and mother. The culture shock they experienced was nothing set against the memory of fear and poverty in their homeland.

"We had come from the tropics to what seemed to be a frozen tundra," Bunnavith recalls. "At first, we went to the church out of appreciation, but we stopped going. We didn't know about conversion then, but that's what it was. We are Buddhists, and that's what we remain, but we still keep in touch with some of the people that supported us when we got here. We lived in a small apartment with another family, and we were told there were too many of us. We had to find a place of our own. My mother, a single mother of five, couldn't understand why we needed to move. But we found another place."

Bunnavith now lives in Brooklyn Park with one of his brothers. He left Orono during our sophomore year of high school, and eventually graduated from St. Louis Park. He became a U.S. citizen, was graduated from the University of Minnesota, and went to work as a computer programmer at Unisys. More recently, he worked as a programmer for Veritas, but has since been laid off. But he's confident he'll find work soon, and has no plans to leave the Twin Cities. This is his home.

In 1995, he returned to Cambodia at the end of a tour of several Asian cities. The experience left him unspeakably sad. "I had been to Hong Kong, a real modern city, with tall buildings and busy streets," he recalls. "When the plane was coming into Cambodia, there was still only one runway, and people living in huts, and cows grazing nearby. They still live in poverty there."

Despite this, Bunnavith returned again last year. Though living conditions seemed slightly improved, "I thought of what we went through--my father," he says, stopping short. "I don't know that I can go back again now."

 

West Side Stories
An oral history as told to G.R. Anderson Jr. and Raoul Benavides

Juan Manuel Vasquez and Joel Martines Chaves

Vasquez: I've been here for one month. I just got here, but I've been here before. Every year I come to work for the summer. I'm contracted to install sprinklers for a company in St. Paul. I come from Michican, Mexico. I have friends that have worked for the company, and that know how to get a visa. They have a company that does that. The work visa is $100.

Chaves:There are 15 to 20 friends of ours that come up for the summer. I've been doing this for three years--work in the summer and then go back. I like it that way. I can bring money to my family. Our families are still in Mexico.

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