I can’t sleep without thinking about the montage of images that have been placed side by side in the media, comparing scenes from Saigon to the mayhem in Kabul. When I think of those desperate faces — then and now — climbing over fences and falling to their deaths while clinging to American aircraft in futile attempts to flee, I feel a heavy sense of dread.
This is the feeling of history repeating itself. Intergenerational trauma is real.
While I was not yet born when the last helicopter lifted off from the U.S. embassy, I am a student of history and grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community that understood firsthand the advantages of being in the U.S. foreign-policy spotlight — and the sting of being left behind once global geopolitical interests moved elsewhere.
I recently asked my father, who served as a South Vietnamese officer, what he thought of the Taliban’s assurances that they would not seek revenge against their enemies. His response: “I don’t believe them. The past has taught us too much.”
He wasn’t always this skeptical.
My mother recalls the day the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A young teacher at the time, she believed that after years of war, perhaps they could finally live in peace. She was wrong. The new communist government inflicted heavy reprisals against those who’d served under the old regime. My father was sent to a re-education camp with countless other men of his generation. He was lucky he came home alive, but he felt like he would be forever marked as the enemy. He knew his children would suffer for his previous service as well.
I fear the Afghan people on the losing side of this longest war are about to experience a similar fate. I also fear the extreme measures people will take to survive and safeguard their families.
For my parents, that meant a harrowing escape from Vietnam by boat three years after the war ended. They eventually resettled in Olympia.
Looking back, they were fortunate to arrive when they did. There was an existing Vietnamese community here, and a framework of knowledge to share from the first wave of refugees who’d responded to the 1975 invitation from former Gov. Dan Evans to rebuild their lives in Washington.
An uncle and aunt hosted and sponsored my parents during their first month in the United States. At that time, sponsorship meant picking up refugees at the airport, helping them get their Social Security cards, setting up a home, knowing where to buy groceries, signing up for ESL classes and, most important, sharing job opportunities.
My parents received government assistance for one year, until my mother successfully tested to become a clerk for the state of Washington. She would hold that job until her retirement. My father cleaned restaurants and schools at night while studying to become a computer programmer. He, too, went on to retire from civil service.
For years, I watched my parents and their vast network of friends volunteer the same welcome services to subsequent waves of Vietnamese refugees. I did not truly absorb what I was seeing at the time, but this legacy of paying it forward is what drives me today as I embark on a grassroots effort with other Vietnamese American friends to help incoming Afghan refugees settle here in Washington state.
We’re certainly learning as we go, but the core goal of Viets4Afghans is to support Afghan refugees and to mobilize Vietnamese people to respond to the most critical needs identified by our state’s refugee resettlement agencies and community organizations like Afghan Health Initiative. That’s why we’re initially recruiting 75 Vietnamese families to host or sponsor at least 75 incoming Afghan refugee families. This won’t be easy to do in the midst of a global pandemic, but we’re heartened by the response. So far, nearly 40 local Vietnamese families have indicated interest in either sharing their property or helping to pay for emergency housing. Dozens more are ready to volunteer their time or to support in other ways. We’ve even fielded requests to expand our efforts outside of Washington state.
This collective desire to show up for Afghans tells me our community has not forgotten the compassion shown to us all those years ago by strangers and organizations throughout the state. We understand the plight and trauma of America’s Afghan allies in a way perhaps few others could, and the passage of time affords us the privilege of taking meaningful action.
As news headlines dissect the absence of American soldiers in Afghanistan and an end to a 20-year war, I know it’s not over.
A new kind of battle has begun. We must brace ourselves for a long humanitarian crisis. The mass exodus that followed the Vietnam War did not end once the U.S. exited. It stretched for decades, as people continued to escape by land and by sea. Many died trying, and those who survived felt both guilt and a sense of responsibility to speak up about the oppression they’d fled.
I keep a photo close by that shows my father and other refugees circa 1980, holding up signs advocating for the rights of their loved ones still languishing in Vietnamese communist prisons and the many refugee camps that cropped up in neighboring countries after that war’s end. Such demonstrations went on for years, prompting the admission of many more refugees from throughout Southeast Asia.
If the events of the last two weeks in Afghanistan are any indication, we should be prepared for history to continue repeating itself.