Montagnards find peace and new homeland in Finland

News Stories, 31 August 2006

OULU, Finland, August 31 (UNHCR) It has been a long journey for Rolang Chung's family, fleeing Viet Nam due to land confiscation and religious persecution and finally finding refuge and peace in northern Finland.

"With a long journey, I don't mean the distance between Viet Nam and Finland. The really long journey took place in the deep forests of Viet Nam, when we tried to find our way across the border to Cambodia. The fear of being caught never left us in peace," Chung said, his voice trembling slightly.

Chung, his wife and children were part of an exodus of Christian hill tribespeople, or Montagnards, fleeing to Cambodia from Viet Nam's Central Highlands in April, 2004, after the Vietnamese government cracked down on protests against alleged land confiscation and religious persecution.

He and his family finally ended up in Oulu, a Baltic port and high-tech industry hub, located in central Finland some 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. It's a far cry from the tropical highland forests of Viet Nam where Chung lived a harsh life growing maize and rice and rearing pigs and chickens, but he, his family and fellow Montagnards are glad to be here and settling in well.

"When I arrived in Oulu, I was astonished how clean, peaceful and quiet it was. From that moment I started to like Finland," said Chung, who can pursue his bible studies in peace and without fear of being persecuted.

© UNHCR/M.Banerjee
In Oulu, Rolang Chung can pursue his bible studies in peace and without fear of being persecuted.

Chung and his family arrived in the Nordic country just over a year ago. They were among a group of 71 Montagnards accepted through UNHCR's annual resettlement programme with the Finnish government. Twenty-seven were settled in Oulu, including the Chungs, while 21 went to the nearby town of Ruukki, 14 to the capital, Helsinki, and the rest ended up in Kajaani.

Among this group, the younger generation are adapting best, according to social worker Päivi Suhonen, who says they find the integration courses and language classes easier to absorb.

Chung's children are typical his two oldest daughters, aged nine and six, are getting high marks at school and picking up Finnish quickly, while two other children are in day care centres and the youngest, a one-year-old, is at home.

Ill-health the legacy of years of toiling in the fields and his flight from Viet Nam is affecting Chung's own adjustment to a new home and culture. He has been unable to complete courses offered by the Oulu municipality and is finding the Finnish language hard to master, while he is also not fit enough to look for work.

But judging by the experience of other Vietnamese refugees resettled in Finland, the Montagnards can look forward to a rosy future. "Most of the first group of Vietnamese refugees that came to Finland over 10 years ago have settled very well. Most of them have found work in shops or restaurants," said Jouni Röntynen from the office for immigrants in Oulu.

"The second generation of this population seems to be doing even better. They are fluent in Finnish and have succeeded well in their studies," he added. The Montagnards, who receive welfare assistance from the government, will be given the opportunity to take more specialised courses and apply for employment.

In another encouraging sign for their successful integration, the Montagnards are reaching out to other communities in this cosmopolitan city which only had about 100 Vietnamese before they arrived. Chung said he now mainly socialises with Finns, most of whom he met through the church, while the bulk of his children's schoolfriends are Finnish.

Chung has no desire to go back to Viet Nam and says he has found a new home, new faith and a new set of values in this Scandinavian nation. "Homeland is a place where we can live in peace. That certainly applies to Finland, but definitely not to Viet Nam," he said.

"It is astonishing that in this country it makes no difference whether one is rich or poor, religious or not. And even more surprising is the equality between girls and boys, which is taken for granted. This we could only dream of in Viet Nam," he added.

By Mira Banerjee in Oulu, Finland