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A Celebration of Home Refugees say 'Thank You America' for taking them in.

BY: Diana Marcum THE FRESNO BEE, May 18, 2002

The asphalt parking lot of a strip mall in what sometimes is dubbed a rough part of town became a swirl of color and stories Friday at a refugee awareness festival.

To Silas Cha, who grew up in the Kings Canyon neighborhood after his Hmong family fled Laos, the event, called "Thank You America," also was a measuring stick.

At almost every booth offering information on health care, education and social services, there was an employee who was once a refugee.

"It's been 26 years and we've become a bunch of guys with cell phones and beepers," said the Berkeley-educated 33-year-old.

"But the longer we are here, the more emphasis there is on retaining culture. We don't want to get lost in a homogenized Americanism. We want to keep the food, the clothes and language."

More than 50,000 people in Fresno County came here as refugees. The bulk of these are southeast Asians displaced by the Vietnam War, but Fresno also is home to refugees from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and other parts of the world.

While there are bigger, better-known festivals for the individual cultures, Friday's third annual event is unique in that it brings all the refugee groups together.

A string of food booths offered whole tilapia fish grilled over coals, papaya salad, strawberry shakes and potato vorenki.

"Have you never tasted Russian food? Come, you must stop," Nick Kostenkov shouted to passers-by. His daughter, 21-year-old Vera, who helped make the complicated pastries, explained her father's methods were straight from Latvia.

"There, we go to the bazaar to sell things and you don't let people just walk by and not say anything," she said.

Larty Vang, 38, tried a Latvian sweet cream puff and said it tasted like Asian sweet bread. He liked the Russian meatball soup and said it tasted like Asian noodle.

"It's pretty much the same but with a different style. It's good to try it . It's good to have this chance to get to know each other."

A war made Vang's Hmong family refugees. The Hmong were allies of America and were persecuted when South Vietnam fell.

The Kostenkovs came to the United States because they are Christians who worshipped in the forest to escape the eyes of the KGB in the former Soviet republic.

"For us, our lives were almost gone, but for our children there was no freedom of religion, no education, no future," said Nick Kostenkov.

"But now three of four children are in college and one left to go. It goes good. We're very happy."

Yu Vang, who with his cousin Nick became Fresno County's first Hmong deputy sheriffs some dozen years ago, manned a booth at the festival to recruit future deputies from a wide ethnic base. He was watching for young people looking for a career path, but he also greeted in Hmong the tiny, elderly women walking by in small groups.

"It's so good to see the elderly out and not afraid to enjoy themselves, whether they speak the language or not. They're not in isolation. It didn't use to be like that," he said.

In the middle courtyard, Cambodian social workers with painted faces and bright garb drummed and accompanied two traditional giant dancing puppets.

"The elders were the puppets. Have you met them?" said Sovan Krib, a drummer and domestic violence case worker who remembers seeing such dances as a child in Cambodia.

He laughed as the puppets were removed to reveal not two aged Cambodians, but young Von Fugal and Nicholas Olsen, Mormon missionaries who use the title "elder." They learned to speak Cambodian in Utah.

Cha, one of the event's organizers, happily weaved through women with pansy-decorated umbrellas, grills full of pork ribs, Cambodian dancers, clothes with cultural and religious significance, and booths promoting every sort of social program.

"It all reminds me of what I recently told my 18-year-old niece about life, religion and politics and identity. That how things are connected and where they are separate is the question you study all your life."

He had only one complaint about the refugee celebration. The many children at the event were often referred to in speakers' comments as "refugee children."

"That's wrong," he said.

"They are the children of refugees, but they are Americans. If you believe American is not about color or where your parents were born, but a commonality of belief, then they are as American as anyone else born in this country."

The reporter can be reached at or 441-6375. GRAPHIC: TOMAS OVALLE -- THE FRESNO BEE Choua Moua, 13, dances to the music of White Shadow, a contemporary Hmong music group, at a celebration of refugees in the Fresno area themed "Thank You America." People from many different ethnic groups, including Russian, Cambodian and Hmong, participated in the festivities. TOMAS OVALLE -- THE FRESNO BEE Von Fugal, left, and Nicholas Olsen wear Cambodian costumes as they dance with Cambodian drummers at a celebration of refugees in the Fresno area. Fresno is home to 50,000 refugees, many of whom are southeast Asian.