In many ways, the world’s refugee problem has never been worse than now. Resources are tight and, in Washington, the refugee response has become institutionalized. More community awareness would go a long way toward helping refugees.
WHEN Gov. Dan Evans and citizens across the state welcomed Vietnamese refugees to Washington 40 years ago, the state’s refugee resettlement program became a model for the nation.
Seeking Refuge: 40 years after the fall of Saigon
Editor's note: As the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, the Seattle Times editorial board admires former Gov. Dan Evans and citizens who welcomed Vietnamese refugees into their homes and lives. That legacy continues, though citizens can provide more direct assistance to today’s refugees. Read more about this project.
Read the column translated into Vietnamese: 40 n?m sau cu?c chi?n Vi?t Nam, hãy v??n lên kh?i trò ‘ch?p m?’
Refugees are driven from their home countries for many reasons. We want to hear from you.
The Bui family pictured in Vietnam before 1975. The family resettled in Tacoma after the Vietnam War.
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Fast forward to 2015: In many ways, the world’s refugee crisis has never been worse than now. Resources are tight and, in Washington, the refugee response has become more bureaucratic and almost invisible to citizens.
More than 16 million people are considered refugees from violence and persecution, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. They might be people from Iraq and Afghanistan who helped U.S. forces in those wars. They might be the children who converged on the U.S. southern border last year trying to escape violence in Central American countries. Refugees from the humanitarian crisis under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s horrific regime are increasing.
But fewer than 1 percent of the world’s refugees — or about 160,000 — get relief through resettlement in a new country. This year, the United States agreed to accept up to 70,000. The federal government should consider whether that is enough, particularly for refugees from those countries in which the United States has had direct involvement in conflicts.
Washington continues as a leader among states accepting refugees, usually ranking in the top 10. Last year, the state admitted 2,863 refugees — most from Iraq and Somalia
The federal government partners with five Washington resettlement agencies — the International Rescue Committee, World Relief, Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Jewish Family Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries — to offer 30 to 90 days of intense assistance to each refugee, including help finding housing, assistance with cultural orientation and connections to social and health services.
Over the years, the period of additional federal cash and medical assistance has been reduced from three years to the current standard of just eight months. The U.S. State Department’s stated expectation is for refugees to find “early economic self-sufficiency through employment to speed their integration into American society.”
Easier said than done.
Many Afghans coming to Washington today were imperiled because they collaborated with U.S. military forces. Their credentials in their home country as engineers and interpreters often do not translate to jobs here.
Refugees not only suffer the loss of livelihoods, homes, possessions and extended family, they also often carry the baggage of trauma. Studies indicate post-traumatic stress disorder rates can be up to 10 times higher in refugee groups compared with the general population.
Iraqi refugee Nadia Mahmood, 42, of Kent says she struggled with depression after resettling in 2010. The threat of violence and her husband’s health problems forced them to leave Iraq. Now the former journalist is doing better and leads the local Iraqi Women Association, a weekly support group.
For many refugees, the financial assistance ends too soon. Some local families have fallen so far behind they are homeless. Last Wednesday night, 84 refugees stayed at Mary’s Place shelter in Seattle — about 43 percent of the total.
Coming this week:
Join The Seattle Times Opinion page’s conversation on Washington’s role in welcoming Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.
Monday: Preview screening of "Last Days in Vietnam," a PBS American Experience documentary, at University of Washington’s Kane Hall. The event, a partnership between KCTS and The Seattle Times, will include a panel featuring executive producer Mark Samels, former Gov. Dan Evans, former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Times editorial writer Thanh Tan. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
Monday: The human suffering experienced by refugees fleeing their homeland can be a terrible burden, writes a King County mental-health provider.
Tuesday: Could you learn a foreign language in just weeks or months? Learning to speak English is every bit as daunting for refugees trying to rebuild their lives, writes Seattle’s director of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
Thursday: A Vietnamese rapper and college student writes of growing up in postwar Vietnam and his decision to release a controversial rap song to the people of Vietnam.
Sunday: A sampling of stories and opinions by refugees and those who help them. Share your story.
In the current budget year, Washington state will spend $9.6 million to help refugees. The money pays for citizenship and English classes, job training and temporary cash assistance — things that help these refugees transition to contributing residents.
A major difference between the hospitality offered to Vietnamese refugees and those today is the groundswell of citizens stepping up to help in the late 1970s. For 10 years before the fall of Saigon, Americans were laser-focused on the Vietnam War. With the draft, families from all walks of life were tapped to fight.
After 14 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fought by a volunteer army, too much of American society has been distanced from the sacrifice of war — and the consequences, including refugees.
Writer: Thanh Tan
Editors: Kate Riley and Mark Higgins
Video: Thanh Tan, Danny Gawlowski, Lauren Frohne
Producer and copy editor: Nikolaj Lasbo
Print designer: David Miller
Art direction: Gabriel Campanario
More community awareness would go a long way toward helping refugees, who now mostly interact with agencies.
Just as Evans encouraged Washingtonians to support Vietnamese refugees 40 years ago, today’s citizens should do the same for their new neighbors coming from the former Soviet Union and Syria, among other places.
Employers can help by offering jobs with prospects for future careers. Citizens can donate to refugee resettlement agencies, volunteer to teach English or tutor a refugee child. They can befriend a family, and show them how to shop for groceries and use the library.
Helping refugees should be a community endeavor — a humanitarian responsibility for all to live up to this state’s and country’s legacy of accepting the world’s victims of circumstance.