Vietnamese Americans mobilize to welcome Afghan refugees


In the middle of the night Uyen Nguyen trudged with her mother and three siblings through a grassy marshland until they reached the edge of the ocean where a small, dilapidated fishing boat lay in the sand. It hit the road with 31 people packed on it.

It was 1985, a decade after Saigon fell, and their last attempt to flee Vietnam. Days later, the boat’s engine stalled, leaving passengers stranded at sea for about a month, forcing them to collect rainwater to feed themselves. Ten people died, including Ms. Nguyen’s mother and two of her siblings. The others, including Ms. Nguyen, 10, and her 15-year-old brother, were rescued by fishermen and taken to a refugee camp in the Philippines.

Ms. Nguyen thought of this escape after seeing pictures of Afghans crammed into US military planes in August, desperately trying to leave a country devastated by decades of war. The unmistakable parallels forced her to help Afghans whose situation was similar to her.

“We can’t just sit back, especially since we’re either refugees or children of refugees,” said Ms. Nguyen, 46, a Seattle entrepreneur who eventually immigrated to the United States with her brother as an unaccompanied minor. “I don’t see an option not to do something.”

The day after the Afghan government collapsed, Ms. Nguyen texted a group of friends suggesting that they set up an organization that would recruit Vietnamese American families to take in the Afghans pouring into the Seattle area. The five friends founded Viets4Afghans, which originally aimed to attract 75 families – a nod to the year Saigon fell. More than 100 volunteered.

Thanh Tan, 40, a Seattle journalist and filmmaker who helped found the group, said her father, a South Vietnamese officer, decided to leave Vietnam after being sent to a re-education camp for six months after the war ended. Like other allies in the American armed forces, he was a target of retaliation. He escaped by boat in October 1978 and made it to Malaysia before arriving in Olympia, Washington.

Ms. Tan’s parents often told her stories about the Americans who helped them find work and relocate. Some made friends with their parents, invited them to their homes, and offered meals. Vietnamese previously relocated to America also helped their father find work cleaning restaurants and schools while taking community college courses.

Her group now hopes to do the same for Afghans who arrive in the country with few belongings or relatives. Although Ms. Tan admitted that there were clear differences between the two wars, she said there was a common experience among the refugees.

“We understand the experience Afghans go through in ways that very few others can,” she said.

Among those taking in refugees are Thuy Do, 39, a family doctor, and her husband Jesse Robbins, 39, a self-defense teacher who have taken two families in Seattle into a second home that they own.

One of them’s father, Abdul Matin Qadiri, 46, said he had moved into this house with his wife and four children in recent weeks. Ms. Do and Mr. Robbins stopped by to hang out with them, Mr. Qadiri said, bringing items such as a teapot and a TV.

“We are happy, very excited,” said Mr. Qadiri through a translator.

Ms. Do, who fled Vietnam with her family in 1991, said they found shelter with a distant relative and family friend for a few weeks after arriving in the United States.

“It’s nice to pay it up a little,” said Ms. Do.

It’s unclear how many Vietnamese Americans greet Afghan evacuees, but Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, estimates hundreds of Vietnamese Americans have reached out to the agency and volunteered to host or sponsor it have Afghan refugees.

“I keep seeing it,” she says. “People who receive this work want to make it available to others.”

For Abdul Aman Sediqi, 36, who arrived in Houston on August 16 with his wife and two sons after fleeing Kabul, Tram Ho was instrumental in furnishing their home.

They first met at a Walmart, where Ms. Ho and her family were helping select plates and kitchen utensils along with Superman clothing for Mr. Sediqi’s sons, who are 1 and 3 years old. The two families communicated through Sanya Wafeq, Mr. Sediqi’s case manager at YMCA International.

First, Mr. Sediqi said he did not know why Ms. Ho wanted to buy items for his family. But after she told him that she was a refugee from Vietnam, he said he understood.

“This family had the same experience as us and left everything behind,” he said in an interview that was translated by his case manager.

Ms. Ho, 52, a doctor who fled Vietnam at age 12, said she had assured Mr. Sediqi that his family would eventually adapt to life in America, just as their family did when they arrived decades ago had done in Houston.

“This is a land of opportunity,” she told him. “Just work hard. Her American dream will come true. ”She said her father worked as a mechanic to support his six children while they were studying.

Ms. Ho remembered the difficulty learning English the first time she moved, but told Mr. Sediqi that his children would likely learn the language quickly because they were much younger than her.

In Springboro, Ohio, Daklak Do has pledged to hire at least 15 Afghan refugees at his Advanced Engineering Solutions company, which supplies tools and equipment for the automotive and aerospace industries.

Mr Do, 65, fled Vietnam by boat with his brother and nephew in 1980. After spending two years in a refugee camp in Indonesia, he arrived in Ohio and got a job washing dishes at a Bob Evans restaurant. He said he wanted to “return the favor” to the Americans who accepted him decades ago.

“They gave me the opportunity to go to school and start my own business,” he said. “I appreciate that very much and that’s why I want to give it back to the people who are just like me.”

Other Vietnamese Americans organize fundraising drives to raise funds for resettlement organizations. The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, which has urged the Biden government to ensure that high-risk Afghan refugees are not numerically capped, has reached about half of its $ 40,000 target, said Minh-Thu Pham, a board member of the group. The organization will also provide career mentoring to Afghans through a partnership with Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees enter the world of work.

Nam Loc Nguyen, 77, the former director of the Immigration and Refugee Division of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles helped organize a live telethon fundraiser that aired on a Vietnamese-language channel last month. The concert, with performances by Afghan and Vietnamese singers, raised more than $ 160,000, he said. The money is split between the Afghan Literacy Foundation and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Mr Nguyen, a well-known MC in Huntington Beach, California, said the American withdrawal in Afghanistan reminded him of the fear he felt in 1975 after leaving his family behind in Vietnam, days before the fall of Saigon.

His sister, who had worked for the US government, was to be evacuated along with her parents and nine other siblings. Mr. Nguyen, a war correspondent for the South Vietnamese military, was to stay.

On April 25th, a friend of Mr. Nguyen’s, a senior government official, persuaded Mr. Nguyen to accompany him to Tan Son Nhat Airport. Mr. Nguyen initially protested. He had no papers, he said, and he probably wouldn’t be let through. His friend insisted he come anyway. Mr. Nguyen arrived at the airport and his friend told him to stay so he could find his family.

Waiting for his family to arrive, Mr. Nguyen scanned bus after bus with evacuees. Days later, a US Marine warned that the communists would attack soon and that he should take the next flight. Although his family had not yet turned up, Mr. Nguyen boarded a plane at midnight on April 28th. He stayed in a refugee camp in Guam before moving to California.

Only his father escaped that year and settled in Belgium before eventually moving to Mr. Nguyen in the United States. Over the next 14 years, his remaining 11 family members fled one by one.

Mr Nguyen said he cried while watching the last plane depart from Kabul and remembered one of the last flights leaving Vietnam.

“That’s why the Vietnamese want to help,” he said. “Because it’s the same pain we’ve been through.”

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