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Paynesville Press - July 13, 2005

Former refugees celebrate 30th anniversary of arrival

By Melissa Andrie

Thirty years ago, Father Richard Leisen, as the executive director of Catholic Charities, welcomed 325 refugees to Minnesota, most of whom were from Vietnam. Leisen, who is currently the priest at St. Louis Catholic Church, worked with 55 sponsors to settle the refugees in the St. Cloud Diocese.

Though many have since spread out across the country, a group of these former refugees came to Paynesville on Sunday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their arrival with Leisen. A Mass and luncheon were held for them, their sponsors, and other attendees. About 75 were at the mass, of whom approximately 60 were Vietnamese. A slide show was shared by Father Leisen that included photos from the resettlement.

refugees The event was organized by a group of former Vietnamese refugees who have stayed in contact since coming to the country. Leisen - who helped settle 1,400 people over a 10-year period, of which he estimates 500 were Vietnamese - was pleased to hear from them. Besides helping families find a home, he placed the refugees in jobs, arranged for their health care, offered spiritual guidance, and searched out teachers of English for them.

Father Richard Leisen celebrated Mass on Sunday with former Vietnamese refugees he helped to settle 30 years ago.

Though he never learned the Vietnamese language, Father Leisen did learn to eat the cuisine. This was one way Leisen, who opened his own home to the refugees, showed an appreciation for their culture and was a welcoming presence for the Vietnamese.

Welcome was also shown to South Vietnamese refugees by members of the Paynesville area. In 1975, a five-member family came to live with the Merwyn Hemmesch family near Paynesville. Hemmesch sponsored the Le family, and the three boys helped him with farm work.

That same year, the Joe Voss family of Paynesville sponsored two men to come to Paynesville. One worked at the Voss plumbing shop, while the other was placed at the Paynesville Hospital.

The Paynesville Ministerial Association volunteered assistance to a family in 1979. Unlike the previous refugees, this family - the Vvongs - spoke no English, though they did speak three other languages. With the help of a translator and English lessons from community members, the father of the family, who worked at Louis Industries, and his brother-in-law, an AMPI employee, learned English along with the other three family members.

After five months, the Vvong family left Paynesville to live in Los Angeles, near relatives. Within a few months, though, another family came to Paynesville, sponsored by Jacob Klein of Regal.

Klein had taught English to high school students in Vietnam ten years earlier and one family member was a former student of his. The family, like the Vvongs, were "boat people," a term for those who paid large sums of money to leave Vietnam on overcrowded boats, according to Leisen. Working to offer support again, the Paynesville Ministerial Association helped the Trinh Cao family. Members of the family worked at Paynesville Implement and Pederson Unlimited.

According to Leisen, the refugees, many of whom are now citizens, were "hard-working and responsible" people who "did quite well" when they came. The Vietnamese, he said, were eager to become self-sufficient and applied themselves in both employment and schooling.

Reflecting on the time he spent working with refugees, during his 22 years as executive director of Catholic Charities, Leisen said, "Those were very good years." Former refugees agree, gratefully celebrating the anniversary of the first of them beginning their lives here.

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