- Associated Press - Friday, February 10, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Refugees entering the United States typically arrive at bustling international airports in major metropolitan areas, and many wind up staying in the country’s large cities.

Over the past few decades, however, several communities of one-time refugees have turned southwest Missouri into home.

The Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/2lbpo9d ) reports that Kenny Nguyen lives in Nixa. But he was born in 1978 in Vietnam.

Nguyen’s father, and other family members, fought for South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, which marked the end of the conflict and the transition to reunification under the communist north, waves of Vietnamese people begin immigrating as refugees to the United States.

The Council of Churches of the Ozarks established a Refugee Resettlement Program in 1975 that helped bring many Vietnamese families to the Springfield area, according to News-Leader archives; the program was shuttered in 1995.

Nguyen and his immediate family were not among the first waves of refugees. For years, he said, his father and other South Vietnamese faced discrimination, Nguyen said. They were limited in education opportunities, and ineligible for certain jobs.

Nguyen was 10 years old when he, along with his parents and two sisters, left the country in 1989. The family spent four months in a refugee camp in Thailand, where they were asked if they had family in the United States. They did; several extended family members had come to Springfield around 1975. A Springfield Catholic church assisted in the family’s relocation to Missouri.

Nguyen said his father - who speaks limited English - initially worked mornings as a bus boy at Shoney’s, then would ride a bicycle to a Chinese restaurant, where he’d wash dishes the rest of the day. He is now semi-retired; Nguyen handles the majority of the day-to-day operations at Canton Buffet, the Nixa restaurant the family opened in 2006.

Nguyen estimated that 95 percent of Chinese restaurants in the area are owned by Vietnamese individuals, or Chinese-Vietnamese individuals who fled from China to Vietnam after the rise of Communism only to have to emigrate again.

Language skills often made it difficult for Asians to get a job in a factory upon arriving in southwest Missouri, but the region’s burgeoning interest in cashew chicken, the local Chinese-American specialty, made for plenty of restaurant jobs.

“A lot of people ask why I didn’t open a Vietnamese restaurant,” Nyugen said. “I would, but it wasn’t that popular at the time.”

By the 1990s, Vietnam, facing international pressure, was taking steps to improve its human rights record and enter into the world economy.

Nguyen, who became a United States citizen in the mid-1990s and is married with two kids, said he is at the restaurant from about 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week. He purchased an auto body shop about a year ago, and is hopeful that he will eventually be able to focus on that and work shorter hours.

“I want my kids to have an office job,” he said.

The Hmong - an ethnic group with roots in the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand - also has a small, but growing, presence in southwest Missouri.

As of 2010, about 260,000 Hmong lived in the United States, generally in the Midwest or western regions; the states with the largest populations, in order, were California, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The 2000 Census found 26 Hmong residents in Missouri, a figure that had increased to 1,329 by 2010. Anecdotal evidence indicates most of them live in the southwest part of the state.

Hmong National Development, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that bills itself as “the leading national policy advocacy organization for the Hmong American community,” has a field office in Fairview, about 15 miles southwest of Monett.

Mai Her, the organization’s Missouri farm program coordinator, told the Joplin Globe in 2015 that Hmong generally move to the state for the chance to buy their own land and have farms.

“Hmong people are a very agricultural people,” Her said. “It comes pretty much naturally.”


Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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