As one of the first families to escape the fall of Saigon and the difficult experience of fleeing our country for America, eventually settling in Washington state, we have a unique perspective on the plight of Afghan refugees.
We experienced the identical heartache of leaving behind everything you have and know for the uncertainty, taking only what you can carry, and sitting on a plane with no clue how you will survive in the next few days, let alone weeks and years to come. And the time in between will be filled with unfamiliar and frightening things for these arriving refugees: The shocking adjustment to the weather, strange new foods, customs and the anxiousness of wanting to provide for your family. These memories, that are so similar, still stir an emotional response from my father, Chuong Huu Nguyen, who participated in this essay.
He was one of the few Vietnamese citizens who was evacuated with U.S. personnel before the fall of Saigon. And the times and sentiment in the U.S. were not that different from what we are experiencing now as a nation. The war was unpopular, viewpoints were divided, and people were extremely concerned about the impact of refugees on the local economy and resources.
Back then, my namesake and eventual godfather, Washington state Gov. Daniel J. Evans, put politics aside. He ignored the political obstacles (for a group that had no votes to exchange for his help) and did everything he could to direct state resources to help. Gov. Evans called on communities, churches and individuals to organize and welcome us. Today, I am proud to see the same response from Gov. Jay Inslee and state representatives. It makes me feel like this desire to help isn’t just in our history but part of our DNA. Meeting the moment is who we are, not just something we did once.
There are, however, things that have changed with the decades, some for the better that will help this new group of refugees. In 1975, there was not as much diversity in Washington state as there is now. Refugees are now coming to a more open and diverse community, with much more knowledge and understanding of different cultures. There are now numerous and established programs, state and local, providing resources for newly displaced people.
Even how we can help has become so much more accessible and streamlined. The ability to organize has never been easier with modern communications and the ability of social media to connect us all. With the worldwide digital connectivity we now have, these refugees have seen and learned more about America than the Vietnamese did in 1975. The ability to simply use Google translate or to be able to connect though the power of the internet should make the refugees’ integration more efficient. Without a doubt, these new refugees still have a long, hard road ahead but better than the road that lays behind them. “Looking forward” is what my father would always focus on when talking about our plight.
As to how this will turn out, I like to think that the experience of the Vietnamese immigration into Washington state will show the possibilities of how welcomed the Afghan refugees will feel. My mother and father worked manual labor after they arrived here. My mom sewed and did electrical assembly while my dad worked an overnight shift for his entire career. My parents’ sacrifices were not wasted as their children received a valuable education, worked hard and became two doctors, two engineering directors, a project manager and a CEO.
At home, I see help wanted signs for similar jobs that my parents held when they arrived here, and at my work I see opening at all levels of skill and talent. My parents then, and these refugees now, will work at the jobs that are available in the short term so that their kids can have the resources to get the education and eventually the jobs they choose. The local economy will benefit from these families settling here, and a wider impact of their experiences from the humanitarian actions and assistance will benefit the rest of the United States for years to come.
If we pull together and meet the moment, we know we can do this and can do it well. Talking with my dad about leaving Vietnam is always hard, but it gets a little easier when we talk about what good came out of it. I hope that one day an Afghan child will be able to have the same discussion with his or her parents as I have had. Let’s go Washington; it is our turn and our time to help.