Refugees encounter series of challenges in Merced County

Thursday, February 17, 2011

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Dad Thay Vang sits with daughters Paliacha Vang, 5, and Kalia Vang, 3, bottom left, as Vang’s wife, Sheng Her, holds JeeMang Vang, 2. The couple, both Hmong, came to Merced almost five years ago from Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp.

Tom Petty was wrong.

The rocker's classic song's lyrics, "You don't have to live like a refugee," didn't take into account some of the huddled masses who have landed in Merced.

Take Sheng Her. The 23-year-old gets $530 a month for herself and one child through Merced County Human Services Agency's Refugee Employment Social Services program. She and her husband, Thay Vang, 24, both Hmong, came to Merced almost five years ago from Thailand.

They lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, but the camp closed and they had two choices: return to Southeast Asia and face persecution from the Laotian government (which denies the charge) or travel to America, according to translator Vang Vang, who works at Merced Lao Family Community as a cultural broker in its mental health program.

The program receives federal funding that is designed to serve refugees who have been in the country for fewer than five years and who are receiving assistance from CalWorks, according to Nicole Pollack, refugee coordinator for Merced County.

CalWorks is the program that provides temporary financial assistance and employment-focused services to families with minors, according to its website.

The refugee assistance program, which received $14,500 for this fiscal year, helps a majority of Hmong and Laotian refugees. But those numbers have been dwindling in the past five years because the program is losing refugees who can't qualify once they go over the five-year limit.

Her is one of the people who won't get any financial aid after June of this year because of the five-year rule.

That's a cause of concern for her husband, Thay Vang, who says $530 is not enough for the family of five.

"Within the last five years our numbers have been dwindling for the Hmong or Laotian who originally came to Merced County," said Pollack, who is also the deputy director for the agency. "So they no longer qualify for the program that falls under CalWorks. But they do qualify for some programs from the Merced Lao Family Community."

There are 20 people taking part in the program. That number has fallen significantly from past years, when it served around 300 refugees, she said.

Pollack said the refugee program offers assimilation and acculturation into society, social service referrals such as access to medical care or counseling services, and helping refugees transition from public assistance into stable employment. In Merced County, that means partnering with Merced Lao Family Community, a nonprofit, which can provide the services and work directly with the families.

"They definitely have the cultural view and they have a linguistic capability and do a wonderful job with working with the refugee population," Pollack said.

However, Thay Vang, who used to be part of the refugee assistance program, decided to quit because he couldn't find a solid job opportunity. He said he would take any job offered, but it was hard to find the proper training through the program. He decided to attend Merced Adult School to learn how to read, write and learn how to use a computer.

"It is difficult, so we try to work with other agencies through contracts and that's why we chose Lao Family because they absolutely understand the difficulties they are facing," Pollack said.

And someday, once he does all that, Vang will gladly lose his place as a refugee.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or


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