Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1998
A tale of government generosity, human flexibility and a tug-of-war between an ancestral homeland and a new way of life
By Nazli Zaki
The tiny hamlet is known simply as The Farm. Individual vegetable patches are alive with ripe tomatoes, red peppers, sugar cane and ginger. There is a Catholic church, but more unusually there is also a modest Buddhist temple – reputedly the only one on the continent. The Farm has the feel and flavour of Asia, but is in fact in South America, in the tropical Argentine province of Misiones, and is home to 20 families from Laos.
Refugees normally find safety in countries near their own or in places with family, cultural or historical links. Argentina and Laos are as distant as it is possible to imagine, and how these Lao reached there and eventually integrated after an extremely difficult start, is an unusual tale of government generosity, human flexibility and the constant tug-of-war between an ancestral homeland and a new way of life.
At the height of the 1970s exodus from Southeast Asia, Argentina agreed to accept around 300 families from Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. The Lao were mostly soldiers or city traders, but to comply with Argentinian specifications, they had declared themselves to be farmers. When they arrived in their new homeland, they had to grapple not only with a language they had never heard before, but they were also expected to settle in farming communities which wanted to employ them.
Several families, overwhelmed by so many problems and an uncertain future in an alien land, immediately moved on to France or Canada where they joined relatives. The rest stayed on. Rather than become a farm labourer, 40-year-old Saman "began to tour the country on foot, merchandise bag slung over my shoulder." He discovered he could buy clothes in the capital, Buenos Aires, and sell them for a profit door-to-door in the interior. "I had to communicate at first in sign language to sell my things," he recalls, but he is now fluent in Spanish. He, and some other Lao, have successfully integrated in and around Buenos Aires.
Ninety families moved to the tropical province of Misiones which reminded them, of Laos. There, they either continued working as itinerant salesmen or on local plantations. Twenty families settled on The Farm, moving into homes purchased for them by UNHCR and eventually becoming the farmers they originally claimed to be. "We finally learned to work the land," says 45-year-old Nan who, like all the Lao women, work alongside their husbands in the field. "Our dream now is to set up a small fish farm for our own use." Even after two decades in South America, the Lao yearn for their old fish diet.
The Lao here finally raised $25,000, with donations and interest free-loans from Lao Buddhist communities in the United States and France, and worked four months last year to build their own temple. It has quickly become the spiritual centre of the community. Most Buddhists spend evenings here, chatting and sitting along the walls decorated with landscape paintings of Laos. Buddhist monks from America and Europe are training members in spiritual guidance. A few houses away, the smaller Catholic community celebrates in its own small church.
A BRUSH WITH FAME
Sitting on a wooden porch, sharing a medley of tropical fruits, rice and red sauces, the Lao recount their one brush with fame. Last year they were hired as extras, playing the parts of Chinese soldiers, monks and street vendors in the movie Seven Years in Tibet which starred Brad Pitt. It was partly shot in the mountainous province of Mendoza. "We were not paid very much, but there were no expenses, so what we got we could keep," says Saman, passing around snapshots of himself with Brad Pitt. "It was fun."
But times have turned tough recently on The Farm and in another nearby Lao community reached by passing through a huge gate named, simply, Laos. Here the families have sold the homes provided by UNHCR and replaced them with more traditional Lao straw huts. But the Lao traveling salesmen and vegetable sellers from both villages are finding it increasingly difficult to turn a profit. A few Lao students have received university scholarships through the German government's Albert Einstein initiative open to refugees and returnees in Argentina; but many now have to abandon their education after primary school and go to work.
THINKING OF GOING HOME
Some have begun to think of returning to the homeland they left behind 20 years ago. Three families repatriated last year and have received basic assistance from the Lao government and UNHCR as well as access to temporary lodging, schools and training projects. Others, cautiously, are thinking of following them. "We may not do any better than we're doing here," says one young Lao, "but at least we'll be home."
At Buenos Aires international airport a Lao woman of 24, a seamstress, and her brother, a mechanic, wait for an aircraft to take them home. "We learned to do these things in Buenos Aires," the young man says. "Now, we want to take them home." Both are aware that they have been 'lucky refugees.' A generous government offered them sanctuary. They were allowed to settle permanently and were then given the choice not every refugee gets – to continue their new lives or return to a safe future in the homeland they never forgot.
Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)