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March 2, 2005: Hmong refugees OK'd after TB scare

Just one month after officials called a temporary halt to Hmong refugee resettlement because of tuberculosis, a few refugees have been cleared and are coming to the Central Valley.The U.S. State Department issued the moratorium after a drug-resistant form of TB was found in some of the refugees at a Thai camp called Wat Tham Krabok. The relocation started last June, with a total of 1,000 Hmong resettled in the United States so far.

More than 400 people from the Wat have moved Merced since June, but none have moved since the ban was implemented.

Last week, all that changed.

Phil Flores, refugee coordinator for the Merced County Human Services Agency, said on Feb. 25 a family of three came to Merced, and Tuesday another family of seven was relocated here.

About 27 refugees -- those who have tested completely free of the disease -- have been released by the State Department from the Wat.

The State Department said refugees could be relocated if every member of their family was free of any form of TB, Flores said.

More than 800 people are expected to relocate to Merced from the Wat by June, said Judi Zoboli, project coordinator for Merced Lao Family Community Inc.

Zoboli said all the refugees in Merced have passed their health tests, and no cases of the drug-resistant TB have been found in this county.

The refugees who are still in the Wat camp are all being re-tested, Zoboli said, and the flow of Hmong into the United States should start again by mid-May.

"We have about half of the refugees that we were expecting," she said.

For the families already here, adjusting to their new homes has been both difficult and easy, Zoboli said, depending on a number of factors.

"The kids are doing great," she said, "it's the adults who are having problems."

For example, she said, the adults don't speak English, don't have jobs and have a hard time finding housing. Also, it's easier for children to acclimate to change.

But a task force of county agencies was formed last year to help the refugee families navigate a system that is difficult for them to understand, Zoboli said, and tries to help the adults with all those issues.

"Hopefully, from these programs, the refugees can find jobs," Zoboli said.