Americans of Vietnamese descent mobilize to welcome Afghan refugees

In the middle of the night, Uyen Nguyen walked through a grassy swamp with his mother and three siblings until they reached the ocean’s edge, where a small dilapidated fishing boat ran aground on the sand. He left with 31 people crammed into it.

It was 1985, a decade after the fall of Saigon and their last attempt to escape Vietnam. A few days later, the boat’s engine spat, stranding the passengers at sea for about a month and forcing them to collect rainwater to support 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 the escape after seeing images of Afghans crammed into U.S. military planes in August, desperate to leave a country ravaged by decades-long war. The unmistakable parallels, she said, compelled her to help Afghans whose situation is similar to the one she experienced.

“We cannot stand idly by, especially since we are either refugees or children of refugees,” said Ms. Nguyen, 46, an entrepreneur from Seattle who ultimately immigrated to the United States with her child. brother as unaccompanied minors. “I don’t see an option not to do something.”

A day after the collapse of the Afghan government, Ms Nguyen texted a group of friends and offered to start an organization that would recruit Vietnamese American families to welcome the Afghans who flocked to the Seattle area. The five friends founded Viets4Afghans, which initially aimed to enlist 75 families – a nod to the year Saigon fell. More than 100 volunteered.

Thanh Tan, 40, a journalist and filmmaker in Seattle who helped start the group, said his father, a South Vietnamese officer, decided to leave Vietnam after being sent to a re-education camp for six months afterwards. the end of the war. Like other allies of the American forces, he was the target of reprisals. He escaped by boat in October 1978, traveling to Malaysia before arriving in Olympia, Wash.

Ms. Tan’s parents often told her stories about Americans who helped them find jobs and relocate. Some have befriended his parents, inviting them over to their homes and offering meals. Vietnamese who had relocated to America earlier also helped his father find work cleaning restaurants and schools while he attended community college.

His group now hopes to do the same for Afghans who arrive with few assets or relatives in the country. Although Ms. Tan acknowledged that there are clear differences between the two wars, she said there was a shared experience among the refugees.

“We understand the experience of Afghans in a way that very few others can understand,” she said.

Among those hosting refugees are Thuy Do, 39, a family doctor, and her husband, Jesse Robbins, 39, a self-defense instructor, who have hosted two families in Seattle in a second home they own.

The father of one of them, Abdul Matin Qadiri, 46, said he, his wife and four children had moved into the house in recent weeks. Ms Do and Mr Robbins stopped to spend time with them, Mr Qadiri said, bringing items like a teapot and a television.

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

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

“It’s good to pay a little later,” Ms. Do said.

It is not known exactly how many Vietnamese Americans are hosting Afghan evacuees, but Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, estimated that hundreds of Vietnamese Americans have contacted the agency and have come forward. volunteers to host or sponsor Afghan refugees.

“I see it over and over again,” she said. “The people who get this job want to provide it to others. “

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

They first met at a Walmart, where Ms. Ho and her family helped pick out plates and cooking utensils, as well as Superman-themed clothing for Mr. Sediqi’s sons, aged 1. and 3 years. The two families communicated through Sanya Wafeq, Mr. Sediqi’s case manager at YMCA International.

At first, Mr. Sediqi said he didn’t know why Ms. Ho wanted to buy items for her 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, leaving everything behind,” he said in an interview translated by his case manager.

Ms Ho, 52, a doctor who fled Vietnam when she was 12, said she assured Mr Sediqi that her family would eventually adjust to life in America, as her family did. when he arrived in Houston decades ago.

“It’s a land of opportunity,” she told him. “You just have to work hard. Your American dream will be realized. She said her father worked as a mechanic to support her six children through college.

Ms Ho recalled the difficulties learning English when she first moved away, but told Mr Sediqi that her children would likely be able to learn the language quickly because they were so much older. young than it.

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

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

“They gave me the opportunity to go to school, to open my own business,” he said. “I really appreciate this, and that’s why I want to give this back to people who are like me.”

Other Americans of Vietnamese descent are organizing fundraisers to collect donations for resettlement agencies. The Vietnamese Progressive Organization, which has called on the Biden administration to ensure that high-risk Afghan refugees are not put on a number cap, has raised about half of its $ 40,000 target, Minh said. -Thu Pham, member of the group’s board of directors. . The organization will also provide professional mentoring to Afghans through a partnership with Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees enter the workforce.

Nam Loc Nguyen, 77, the former director of the Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Department of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, helped organize a live telethon fundraiser that was broadcast on a channel in Vietnamese last month. The concert, which included performances by Afghan and Vietnamese singers, raised more than $ 160,000, he said. The money will be shared between the Afghan Literacy Foundation and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Mr Nguyen, a well-known MC in Huntington Beach, Calif., Said the US withdrawal from Afghanistan reminded him of the anguish he felt in 1975 after leaving his family in Vietnam, days before the fall of Saigon.

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

On April 25, a friend of Mr. Nguyen, a senior government official, persuaded Mr. Nguyen to accompany him to Tan Son Nhat airport. Mr. Nguyen initially protested. He had no documents, he said, and he probably wouldn’t be allowed to pass. His friend insisted that he come anyway. Mr. Nguyen went to the airport and his friend told him to stay so he could reunite with his family.

Mr. Nguyen waited for his family to arrive, scanning bus after bus carrying the evacuees. Days later, a US Navy warned that the Communists would attack soon and that he would have to take the next flight. Although his family has yet to appear, Mr. Nguyen boarded a plane at midnight on April 28. He stayed in a refugee camp in Guam before moving to California.

Only his father escaped that year, settling in Belgium before eventually joining Mr. Nguyen in the United States. Over the next 14 years, the other 11 members of his family fled one by one.

Mr Nguyen said he cried as he watched the last plane take off from Kabul, recalling how he left on one of the last flights out of Vietnam.

“This is why the Vietnamese want to help,” he said. “Because it’s the same pain that we went through.”

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