Montagnards upset after commissioners deny request for farmland

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – During the Vietnam War, a group of native Vietnamese people, the Montagnards, fought by the American soldiers' sides. They are credited with providing valuable assistance and information to U.S. troops throughout the war and afterward.

Their allegiance to the United States has resulted in backlash against them from the Vietnamese government, and thus, the U.S. government has granted refugee status to many Montagnards wishing to immigrate to America.

About 10,000 Montagnards, and their descendants, now live in Greensboro.

Ysiu Hlong is one of them. He has lived in the United States since 1986.

"Before that, I was in the jungle of Vietnam," he said. "In the jungle it was a very terrible life. We had to fight, we had to face many obstacles. Disease, starvation, all kinds of problems."

Hlong said the Montagnard people farmed for a living, and farmed for survival while living in the jungle.

"We are a farming people," Hlong said. "We like to farm, to plant, to grow stuff. To live a natural way of life."

Hlong now leads the Montagnard Association in Greensboro. He said many Montagnards chose to relocate to North Carolina because the topography of the land here is similar to that of the jungles of Vietnam.

"We have a lot of friends here," he said. "North Carolina is mostly the same as the jungle in the central highlands in Vietnam."

But Hlong said the Montagnards have struggled due to a lack of farm land. In Vietnam, he recalled that each one of them would have had at least an acre to farm for themselves. Here, he said they are confined to small gardens behind their houses or apartments.

"Most of our people are very low income," he said. "They are trying to grow crops in the backyard. But they don't have enough land."

He explained that they need farming space as a way of income, but also as a way to eat.

"Here we have freedom," Hlong said. "We can do everything we want. But only one thing that we cannot do -- we do not have land to farm."

So last month, the Montagnard community submitted a proposal to the Guilford County Commissioners, requesting 75 acres of land that they could farm. But the commissioners struck down the request eight votes to one. The one vote in favor of giving the Montagnards land was Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson.

Hlong said he never expected their request to be denied. He said aside from benefiting the Montagnards, if they were able to farm a large plot of land, they would sell their produce to the community.

"Like cabbage, carrots, mustard greens, or Chinese cabbage. And also rice, watermelon, cucumber," he said.

Hlong added that the Montagnards of Greensboro, many of whom have organized into a non-profit called Hero Farms, were given a grant from the USDA for $200,000, but it is contingent upon securing at least 75 acres of farmland by March 2015.

"If we don't have a piece of land, we feel very sad because the USDA is not going to give us the grant," Hlong said. "To preserve our culture and our way of life, we have to farm. That's what we want, if possible."

Branson said he's not sure why his colleagues voted against giving land to the Montagnards. He said there is no plan as of now to put the request back on the agenda.

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