Refugees from Vietnam's highlands brace for culture shock in Finland

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Hving Prang holds his head in his calloused farmer's hands, staring wide-eyed at television images of snowbanks as tall as men, skiers crossing frozen lakes and schoolchildren bundled in their parkas.

He is among some 15 ethnic Montagnards who fled Vietnam's Central Highlands citing religious persecution, found shelter in Cambodia and are now attending a three-day course to brace for the culture shock of being resettled in Finland.

The first batch of 27 Montagnards left May 11 to find new lives in the Nordic country on the other side of the world, according to the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees.

UNHCR has 680 Montagnards from Vietnam in its care in Phnom Penh, including this group of 15 men, women and children. The training was organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the Cambodian capital.

Pictures of Nordic landscapes hang on the walls of the tiny room. A table with hot coffee and sweets wrapped in banana leaves also holds brochures in English entitled "A home in Finland" and "Beginners guide to living in Finland".

The course covers history and geography, and also practicalities like Finnish customs, which are sometimes puzzling for these Christian farmers, aged 16 to 54, who came from the inland provinces of Gia Lai, Dak Nong and Kontum.

"In winter, the temperature often drops to -25 degrees (-13 Fahrenheit)," says the IOM instructor, Saed Guled, a Somalian who went to Finland as a refugee at age 18. The Montagnards laugh.

"When you are in your apartment, using your oven warmth is out of the question. You'll set off the fire alarm," he says, with a Vietnamese translator.

Guled goes on to explain how to use the telephone and the Internet. As he speaks, one Montagnard jots down important words on his forearm.

Hving Prang's brother Nang raises his hand: "What happens if I'm in an accident?"

"At the hospital, you don't have to pay. That's what taxes are for. It's the principle of the welfare state," Guled says, meeting satisfied murmurs from the class.

Finland's Labor Ministry and the OIM designed the class to answer questions from the refugees, but also to avoid misunderstandings.

"For example, in buildings, Finnish children often leave their toys outside. You have to explain to the refugees that they can't take them," Guled says.

The instructor insists he's not trying to promote Finland, but to prepare the refugees as well as possible for their new lives.

"We talk about discrimination and the problems that they will face," he says.

Although foreigners represent only two percent of Finland's population, integration isn't always smooth. According to the Labor Ministry, about half of the 1,700 Vietnamese living in Finland were unemployed in 2002.

"This is why we insist on punctuality, which is very important in Finland, on learning the language and joining in social and cultural life," says Guled, urging the group to be "active" and "open-minded".

The refugees will be offered three years of Finnish language classes once they arrive in their new homes in Hanko, a small port town of 10,000 people in southern Finland.

They will receive a monthly stipend of an undisclosed amount.

"A social worker will advise you, you won't be alone," Guled says. "But you should approach the Finns, who aren't very talkative."

And how better to mingle than at a sauna?

"There are 1.5 million saunas in Finland," Guled says. "This is a place for socializing where it's 78 degrees (172 Fahrenheit) and where you can go with family or friends ... all naked."

The Montagnards look at each other quizzically.

"Sir, we're too shy to go there," worries Nay Eh.

"I would like to, but with my clothes," another says, drawing laughs from the group.

But more than the saunas, it's the freedom that intrigues them.

The refugees say religious persecution and the seizure of their land drove them from Vietnam.

More than 1,000 Montagnards, the indigenous hill people from the country's Central Highlands, fled the area after security forces put down demonstrations in 2001 against land confiscation and religious persecution.

More were exiled after a wave of repression in April 2004 that followed a bloody crackdown on further protests. Freedom of association is a difficult concept for them.

"That means that I can associate with other Montagnards?" asks Hving Nang.

"Then I'm going to start an association," says the refugee, who left his wife and two children to flee with his brother on December 24, 2004.

"I am sad to leave alone," Hving Nang says. "I hope my family will be able to join me. But I want to be free."

Next to him, Rmah Alot smiles. He has been arrested three times by Vietnamese police for practicing his religion, a Christian sect known as Dega, found only in Vietnam's Highlands.

Now he worries about his new life.

"I know I'll be afraid, even crossing the street," he says.