Forty-six years ago, after Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended, Washington, more than any other state, opened its arms.
Now, as the two-decade war in Afghanistan concludes, with chaos and bloodshed, Washington is no longer alone, but is once again welcoming refugees fleeing war and oppression.
Gov. Jay Inslee this week wrote to President Joe Biden, saying state and local agencies and organizations were preparing to resettle the new arrivals.
“As you continue to take all measures necessary to provide swift passage for those fortunate enough to reach safety outside of Afghanistan, I can affirm that Washington stands ready to aid,” Inslee wrote Thursday.
Republican legislative leaders, rarely hesitant to criticize Inslee, have said the same.
“We have seen the tremendous generational benefit of welcoming political refugees to our state and providing them with the precious gift of freedom,” Rep. J.T. Wilcox and Sen. John Braun, the Legislature’s Republican minority leaders, wrote last week, urging the state to prepare for Afghan refugees. “We are confident in our ability as a state to take bold action because we have done it before.”
Wilcox and Braun were referring to former Gov. Dan Evans, the last two-term Republican governor of Washington.
Evans was getting dressed in the governor’s mansion one morning in the spring of 1975, when he saw a news item that California Gov. Jerry Brown was opposing the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in his state.
“We can’t be looking 5,000 miles away and at the same time neglecting people who live here,” Brown said in 1975. Brown even tried to prevent planes with refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base, near the Bay Area.
“I said that’s bull and we’re not like that and we issued a call for citizens to help,” Evans, now 95, recalled this week. “And there was a lot of opposition to doing anything for Vietnamese in the state, but fortunately there was also an overwhelming number of people who said they would help.”
There remains opposition to refugees today, especially within the Republican Party. While some Republican elected officials, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come out in favor of ensuring safe passage for the Afghan population that helped the U.S. military, others have continued what has been the GOP’s increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“The chaos we’re seeing is not an excuse to flood our country with refugees from Afghanistan,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Montana.
“I’m not so sure it was much different 50 years ago,” Evans said. “There were still a lot of people in the state of Washington who said, ‘No, we don’t want those damn refugees.'”
He paid them no heed.
Evans ordered every state agency to aid in resettlement. He asked churches and nonprofits to chip in. And he recruited families to accept refugees into their homes.
“In about two days we had more volunteers than it was possible to handle,” he recalled.
Evans and his wife Nancy went to Camp Murray to meet the first-arriving refugees. He had carefully handwritten a couple sentences in Vietnamese, which he read to greet them.
“It wasn’t much, but it’s a help when you’ve got people who are stranded 10,000 miles away from their homes not knowing where they’re going to be,” Evans said.
Evans said one of the most important things they did a half century ago was ask families to help with not only a place to stay and food and clothing, but community support.
“We especially seek community groups, church groups, labor organizations, service clubs, and other groups willing to sponsor a family or a number of families,” Evans’ administration wrote. They needed “subsistence, housing assistance and employment” but also “moral sponsorship; taking the role of a friend.”
Colin Chuong Nguyen worked for the U.S. embassy in Saigon and managed to escape South Vietnam, with his wife and five children, about a week before the city fell.
They came through Guam, to a refugee camp in California, then to Camp Murray. Their sixth child was born just a couple months later.
They named him after the governor.
“My father was just so touched and moved by a governor taking the effort to relocate and welcome the refugees that he thought it would be appropriate, and he named me after Dan Evans and asked him to be my godfather,” said Evans Nguyen, now 45. “It’s something I wear with a lot of honor.”
Nguyen’s father, by virtue of his job at the embassy, spoke English. His siblings and mother knew not a word.
Nonetheless, they all enrolled in school immediately. His father got a job working nights at a canning facility in Kent; his mother got a job assembling electronics; his oldest sister, who was 10, took the lead in caring for the kids.
“A 10-year old raising five siblings,” he said, “you get robbed of certain parts of your childhood.”
All six kids eventually went to the University of Washington — two are doctors now, one is a director at Blue Origin, one is an architect, one runs an organic food company and Nguyen, who lives in Issaquah, is the director of a medical research company.
And they’ve stayed in touch with Evans. The families have holiday dinners and birthdays together. Evans was at Nguyen’s college graduation. And his wedding.
Nguyen sees the scenes of crowds at the airport in Kabul and thinks of his family’s experience.
“My father left in the middle of the night and we literally could not grab anything, couldn’t say goodbye to people,” he said. “These people are sitting on a plane for God knows how long trying to get out of the country. It’s hard not to get emotional because you just think about how difficult that must be.”
There are refugee placement agencies now that did not exist then. There are more established systems and routines. But it still will not be easy.
“I’d like to think it’s more welcoming than it was back then, but the country’s so polarized now,” Nguyen said. “You’re going to have a ton of these individuals who are going to come here, they’ve given up everything, and they’re going to have to learn a new way of life.”
You can’t take for granted even the most quotidian tasks. Grocery shopping. Nguyen remembers his mother buying a tin of shortening. It had a picture of a chicken on it.
“She thought it was chicken, but you get home it’s just a tub of lard.”
“I know it’s a really polarized time in the country but I would like to send a message,” Nguyen said. “I would like to remind everyone that at the end of the day these are humans in need and I think we all want to help out.”
Before Evans’ push to welcome refugees, Washington had about 450 Vietnamese residents. Today they number about 70,000, the third largest Vietnamese population in the country.
And in the past decade, nearly 5,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in Washington, Inslee wrote.
“Carrying with them the trauma of war, they nonetheless contribute significantly to our state,” Inslee wrote. “Many have served as essential workers, protecting the health of Washingtonians and enabling life to continue over the past 18 months. Washington remains ready to provide aid to Afghans who find themselves in peril after these last 20 years of conflict.”