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Refugees Build Field Of Dreams

During the Vietnam War, American forces were aided by ethnic Christian minorities called Montagnards. The Montagnards paid a price for their support.

After the war, Montagnards in Vietnam were forced to denounce their faith. Those who didn't were arrested and, in some cases, crucified.

The U.S. government granted them refugee status. Today, there are an estimated 6,300 Mongtagnards in the U.S., and about 6,000 of them live in North Carolina.

A farm near Asheboro is trying to unite the community.

The sound of torrential rain slapping jungle leaves hid the cousins, Del Bunoh and Ben Bubong, from Vietnamese soldiers as they fled through the jungles of Cambodia. They were young men, 18 and 19, when demonstrations led by Montagnard churches broke out in Vietnam in 2001. Ben says the fear of arrest grew too high to stay.

He describes surviving his trip through the jungle, “With no food. It was really hard time. Just climb up the trees. We see the bird eggs. Just eat the bird eggs.”

After they made it to a United Nations refugee camp, they were sent to North Carolina, where nearly all the Montagnard refugees had been resettled.

So why North Carolina? Fort Bragg is home base to Special Forces soldiers who were assigned to work with indigenous people during the war. So Special Forces Veterans here, like George Clark, have been advocating for them for over thirty years.

Clark says, “They jumped on my body when I was hit and kept me from getting other rounds, kept me from getting finished off by the MVA. How do you pay that back? You can’t. So you fight for ‘em today.”

Back in Vietnam, George Clark led troops of Montagnard soldiers. And many Special Forces Veterans have similar stories of owing their lives to the Montagnards they fought with. So several of these veterans showed their appreciation by buying 100 acres near Asheboro.

At the time, it was all forested. Del Bunoh says it looked like the jungle he had just escaped from, “This place was not like this, this place was like all the trees, all the jungle all around, covering all these fields.”

Today, part of the land is cleared to build traditional longhouses. One is completed, five more are planned. They will represent the six major tribes that have resettled in North Carolina.

The construction methods are a little different. Back in Vietnam, Montagnards would have used an elephant. They thought they could do the same here, after all the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro in nearby. George Clark dissuaded them by telling them the zoo only has African elephants and they wouldn’t be smart enough for the job. In place of elephants, the Montagnards have done everything by hand and by foot, with paces acting like a measuring tape. Each step acts as one unit of measurement.

These longhouses will be used as gathering space for Montagnards who visit from Greensboro, Raleigh, and Charlotte each weekend. The completed longhouse is 130 feet long and built on stilts. Looking up at it, you can picture yourself in Vietnam having to pull up the wooden stairs to the front door at night to prevent jaguars from entering.

All of this appeals to the Montagnards who are from Vietnam. It doesn’t have as much interest to their kids who were born here. So Ben Bubong and Del Bunoh are doing something else to appeal to them.

Del Bunoh says, “I will feel much better when this soccer field is complete.”

Because they’ve been working on one soccer field for seven years now. They cut down trees with hand tools and raised the $9,200 dollars to have the field leveled. It’s their field of dreams. They imagine that if they build it, young Montagnards will come. And yes, it is surrounded by corn fields.

Del says Montagnards born here have little knowledge of their parents’ language. He says many also don’t show much interest in their parents’ accounts of arrests and violence.

Three weeks ago Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called for Vietnam to release bloggers who were arrested because they were critical of the government.

But Montagnards no longer have refugee status. The U.N. closed its last refugee camps for them in 2011 after the U.S. recognized the Vietnamese government showed signs that it was improving its treatment of Montagnards.

Del Bunoh says, “I’m also American, part American.  But I can’t forget my people. We just can’t abandon what’s going on over there, cause they are still human just like us.”

Veteran George Clark hopes the field will be a gateway for young Montagnards to remember their history. He says, “This is all about preserving their culture and teaching. We have farmland over there where they’re learning organic farming. They know it, they’re teaching it to their kids.”

This is the hope of George Clark and Montagnard elders, but the reality is that these are kids are growing up as Americans. Problems American parents just groan over, like drinking and curfews, are entirely new challenges to Montagnard parents.

Ben and Del are putting new hope in soccer. They’re waiting and watching as green shoots fill the field. And if the grass grows tall enough this fall, it could be the first step towards a change.