Imagine life in a land where your only legal recognition is “male” or “female.”
Imagine a place where people know only their birth year, so everybody claims a Jan. 1 birthday.
Imagine police harassment after your husband fled to a better life and you await permission to follow.
That was Jum Y’s reality – until her story continued.
The sequel began 10 years ago in the arms of St. Paul’s Christian Church on Blue Ridge Road. The latest chapter continues with the Montagnard Name Project, led by the church’s Mary Circle women’s ministry.
Here’s a bit of background.
In 2002, Jum’s husband, Glun, escaped through the jungle to a refugee camp in Cambodia, fleeing oppression and ostracism. The Vietnamese government targeted the indigenous Montagnard people, who were known to have fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
With help from the United Nations, our government and a Lutheran organization that finds refugee sponsors, Glun joined the largest population of Montagnards outside Vietnam and settled in our state. He was one of four men sponsored by St. Paul’s.
In 2005, after years of diplomatic negotiations, Jum, Glun and their four children became the first St. Paul’s Montagnard family to reunite.
“It was the most wonderful reunion,” said Laura Klauke, a Mary Circle member who teaches English and Bible study to the Montagnard women of the church. “It was the best Christmas present I ever had.”
Since then, the three other families have reunited. The families, who faced brutality for their worship in Vietnam, became members of St. Paul’s.
Resettling, reclaiming names
But the process of resettling as families has been complicated. Because the Vietnamese government does not recognize Montagnard family names or statuses, women and children who leave Vietnam under official sanction of the government are given last names of only “A” for male or “Y” for female.
Men were allowed to use a chosen family name on official immigration documents, leaving many Montagnard families with three last names: Y, A and their Montagnard family name.
It spells confusion on everything from school records to job applications. But you’ll notice Montagnard children have first names beginning with the same letter as a symbol of family identity. Jum and Glun’s children are Nip, Ni, Neh and Nap. The fifth, Natalie, was born here.
“To have the last name, I’m happy,” said Jum, who plans to become Jum Yiet Siu, using her mother’s first name and her husband’s last name. “We want the last name. We want it for a long time.”
It’s a process of legalities, time and money. Even so, the Mary Circle is helping 17 St. Paul’s Montagnards change their name.
“We always want to do something beyond ourselves,” said St. Paul’s associate pastor Diane Faires.
In addition to the name-change project, St. Paul’s members have helped the families with housing – including building two Habitat homes – and with doctor’s appointments. They’ve also helped each woman get a driver’s license and learn English and the Bible.
They’ve celebrated marriages and named babies, as it is customary among Montagnards to ask loved ones to choose a baby’s name at birth. And St. Paul’s member Julie Mullin employs many of the Montagnard women at Fiberactive Organics, a sewing business she owns.
Attorney Cathy Cralle Jones, wife of St. Paul’s pastor the Rev. Phil Jones, oversees the charge to legally change the Montagnards’ names.
That includes filing petitions, which cost $120 per person and must include an official photo ID and proof of state and federal criminal background checks. The background checks, which each take at least six weeks to process, cost another $50. Before consideration, a notice of the petition must be posted in the Wake County Courthouse for at least 10 days. Also required are two affidavits of character and an affidavit stating that the applicant owes no taxes or child support.
The $120 filing cost to change a child’s name requires a petition that must be signed and filed by both parents. For minors 16 or older, two affidavits of character also are required.
In the past two months, all adult fingerprints have been done and state criminal background checks are complete, Cralle Jones said. Completed federal checks are expected this month.
So far, St. Paul’s has raised almost half of the $2,500 needed to change the names of its eight adults, two 16 and over, and seven children.
“Once we have all the legal stuff done, we’d like to have a Christening,” Cralle Jones said, noting Biblical references to naming. “When people are called by God, they are given a new name.”
As word spreads about St. Paul’s Montagnard Name Project, others of our Montagnard neighbors want to legally claim their family name, too, and claim the identity denied in their home country.
“I hope this effort will begin circles of involvement,” Cralle Jones said.
Perhaps we need only imagine what it must feel like to be part of St. Paul’s and its Mary Circle.
I imagine a soul ignited by a joyful spirit.