Elevating Asian Voices in the SouthStory #7
To understand the motivation behind Liana Adrong’s desire to help her Montagnard community, you need to know her parents’ story.
Her father, who died in 2011, didn’t speak much about his most difficult years in Vietnam. The former educator was captured and imprisoned for seven years in a reeducation camp following the Vietnam War. While he was being captured, her mother had to flee on foot days after giving birth to one of Liana’s brothers. She nearly died along the journey.
Separated by thousands of miles, they were unable to see each other while he was imprisoned. Her mother would travel to nearby villages for any information about her father. During their separation, Liana’s mother was among many families forced to work on government farms. She worked while carrying her baby boy on her back, as her older children scavenged for any food they could find. Now 78, dementia is slowly overtaking the mind of this tough survivor who birthed nine children. Liana was born after her parents were reunited.
Through their most difficult years, Liana’s father had one goal in mind: that they go to the U.S. so that his children could be educated.
More of Liana's Story
Liana Adrong was 13-years-old when she and her family left Vietnam as refugees.
They landed in Greensboro in 1996, with little more than what they carried.
Her parents found work in factories, and often worked two jobs. Their children often looked after themselves.
The Vietnamese are the largest single refugee group to be resettled in the U.S. in the last 40 years. Since 1979, about 4,000 Vietnamese have resettled as refugees or secondary migrants in Greensboro, according to UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians. Although from Vietnam, Liana’s family identify as Montagnards, a French term for “mountain people.” Montagnards include a number of Indigenous tribes from the Highlands of Vietnam. Traditionally farmers and hunter-gatherers, the U.S. Army Special Forces recruited them to assist as front line soldiers alongside Americans during the Vietnam War. Guilford County is now home to the largest Montagnard community outside of Southeast Asia, with more than 9,000 residents.
Liana says the younger Montagnard generation today consider the term “Montagnard” a byproduct of colonization — Vietnam was under French rule until 1954. They prefer to be identified by their tribe. The Rhade and Jarai are the largest of the nearly 30 Montagnard tribes of Vietnam’s Highland region. Liana’s family is of the Rhade (rah day) tribe.
She learned much of this history, not in school, but from elders in her community. When she enrolled at Allen Middle School as a seventh-grader, she didn’t speak any English. ESL programs were limited then. Just a few schools had programs, so many refugee and immigrant children learned on their own and fended for themselves.
“I got bullied. This girl behind me was pulling my hair. I didn’t know how to tell her stop,” Liana recalls. “I was relying on my classmates because they knew more English. I just followed them around. I think it was a hard transition.”
She missed her cousins, with whom she exchanged numerous letters. They were fascinated with America and even asked what the dirt was like. When Liana transferred to Aycock Middle School (now Swann Middle), there were more students from Vietnam. Although they were from different tribes, they could speak to each other in Vietnamese. She also found a mentor who helped her tremendously, she says.
The family also moved to Summit-Cone Apartments, where many immigrants and refugees have been placed throughout the years. The apartments had fallen into disrepair and, and in 2018, five children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo died in an apartment fire that was found to have been without fire or carbon monoxide detectors. It launched an investigation into the condition of the apartments.
But Liana, who lived there about 20 years before the fatal fire, remembers it fondly.
“At that time, all the people who lived there were Montagnards, except for one family,” she recalls. “That was where we felt at home. There were people like us. People spoke our language. It felt like home.”
As time passed, her English improved and Liana and her siblings became more acclimated to American culture. Learning English was easier for them, she says, than her parents. It’s harder for older refugees and immigrants to learn the language, especially when juggling multiple jobs and raising families.
“They worked all the time. My brothers and I took care of ourselves. Back in the day, minimum wage was $5.50, so they worked two jobs,” Liana says of her parents. “They didn’t have time for English classes. So the children took care of ourselves. Because of how we were raised, we were responsible.
Her father spoke some English, but her mother really struggled to retain it. She wasn’t literate in her own language and never went to school. She, hesitated to come to the U.S., but Liana’s father convinced her to come because their children needed her help so that they could go to school.
They, along with other Montagnard families, also received assistance and guidance from an organization that was pivotal in their lives: the Montagnard Dega Association.
Liana always wanted to help others, especially those in her community.
She thought she wanted to be a nurse because she had never seen any Montagnard nurses. Then she began pursuing education at GTCC, then UNCG. But after volunteering at an elementary school, she determined it wasn’t for her. She took a break for a couple of years.
She doesn’t recall how she stumbled upon social work, only that when she did, she knew immediately that was her calling.
“For me, I find social work fits me best because when I was doing volunteer work through church or a family friend would come to me and ask for help with doctor appointments and things like that, I was already helping people in the community,” she says. “When I went back to school, a professor showed us a video that a social worker is not just one thing. You can do medical, you can do policy. You can do different things.”
When Liana returned to school, she was a mom to two young children. Her son was younger than 5 and her daughter was about 1. One instructor — a mother, herself — didn’t mind if students had to bring their children to class. Liana recalls bringing her son with her. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in social work in 2016, and last May completed her MSW.
“If higher education is your dream, in the United States you can achieve that. I was a mom of two, if you need help, there is help along the way. It doesn’t matter how old you are. I want to uplift and encourage people that might not think that education is important right now, but later on, it will help you,” she says.
Liana began working with the Montagnard Dega Association while earning her bachelor’s degree at UNCG. With the help of Raleigh Bailey, the longtime executive director of UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians, she helped establish the Montagnard American Organization with other Montagnard students. Through that organization, they worked to encourage Montagnard youth to go to school and preserve the culture through music and dance.
She joined Montagnard Dega Association in 2017, after earning her BSW.
“It fits me well with my mission and goals. I still want to work with youth. A lot of people don’t know how to navigate the system, with the college application or FAFSA application. Back in the day, you just kind of learned everything. I want us to be able to be there for the community,” she says. “Education is important to me. In Vietnam, we don’t really have a lot of opportunity to go to school because it costs a lot. For me, my parents sacrificed a lot so that we could have a better future.”
In July, Liana became MDA’s Executive Director. She succeeds MDA’s longtime leader of more 30 years Dr. Ysiu Hlong, who is retiring. Many refugee assistance organizations only receive funding for those in the U.S. less than five years. But as she looks toward the future, Liana wants to secure funding to continue helping refugees who have been in the U.S. longer.
“Our community is aging and their needs are increasing,” she says.
They need assistance regarding medical and other issues. They also need companionship. She wants to establish programs in which youth can complete service hours by assisting the elderly. She also wants to preserve the oral history of Montagnard elders.
MDA’s small staff of seven has struggled to get funding, but Liana says she’s motivated by helping her community, not personal wealth. She’s also proud to show other young Montagnard women that they can be leaders in the community too.
“Even though our organization is not big and doesn’t have a lot of money, I’m doing this work more as a way for me to give back,” she says. “You don’t really see women (in the Montagnard community) in leadership roles. If you think about it, all the people I have seen as far as leaders are men, either in church or other leadership roles. And the women are either standing beside them or waiting for their husbands.
We’re the next generation. I’m grateful for my husband, he’s my number one supporter, cheerleader, But I think when it comes to this kind of work, you’re seeing a lot of women standing up and into those leadership roles.”
Liana also proudly serves as Chairwoman of the Greensboro International Advisory Committee. She hopes to inspire the next generation of Montagnard leaders.
“I hope that a lot of younger people will get out of their comfort zone and take on leadership roles. I want to inspire our young people, so they can give back to the vulnerable population in their community. There are many ways they can give back to their own community (volunteer their time, monetary donations, network with others/promote the organization, and more),” she says.
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Nancy Sidelinger Herring
Nancy Sidelinger Herring is a professional photographer with 25 years experience and based in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina. She spent 19 years working as the Special Sections photographer with the Greensboro News & Record.
She is passionate about helping homeless pets, whether it's taking their photos to help them find homes, volunteering at shelters or teaching pet responsibility classes.
Nancy loves spending time with her husband Jamie, their three dogs, her family and friends and getting to know her new grandson, Kenai.
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