Vietnamese Americans, once displaced themselves, mobilise to help Afghans

Afghan refugees arriving at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, on Sept 2, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEATTLE (NYTIMES) - In the middle of the night, Uyen Nguyen trudged through a grassy marshland with her mother and three siblings until they reached the edge of the ocean, where a small, dilapidated fishing boat was beached on the sand. It set off with 31 people packed on it.

It was 1985, a decade after Saigon had fallen, and their final attempt at fleeing Vietnam. Days later, the boat's engine sputtered out, stranding the passengers at sea for about a month and forcing them to catch rainwater to sustain themselves. Ten people died, including Nguyen's mother and two of her siblings. The others, including Nguyen, 10, and her 15-year-old brother, were rescued by fishermen and taken to a refugee camp in the Philippines.

Ms Nguyen, now 46, thought of that escape after seeing images of Afghans crammed on US military planes in August, desperate to leave a country ravaged by a decades-long war. The unmistakable parallels, she said, have compelled her to help Afghans whose situation is similar to what she experienced.

"We can't just sit back, especially since we're either refugees or children of refugees," said Ms Nguyen, an entrepreneur in Seattle, who eventually immigrated to the United States with her brother as unaccompanied minors. "I don't see an option not to do something."

The Vietnam War has long stood as a symbol of American failure, with thousands of Vietnamese left behind after US troops swiftly withdrew and communist forces toppled Saigon.

For many who made it to the US, watching the chaotic exit of American allies unfold in Afghanistan as the Taliban captured province after province evoked reminders of their own harrowing experiences fleeing their home country.

But the painfully familiar scenes have also served as a catalyst for Vietnamese Americans across the country to mobilise in support of the Afghans. Many have offered their homes, organised fund-raisers and begun political advocacy campaigns.

About 64,000 evacuees have arrived in the US since the Taliban seized Kabul over the summer, with the majority spending weeks on military bases before they are resettled. Those Afghans are now rebuilding their lives in an unfamiliar country, just as thousands of Vietnamese did more than 40 years ago.

One day after the Afghan government collapsed, Ms Nguyen texted a group of friends and proposed starting an organisation that would recruit Vietnamese American families to host the Afghans streaming into 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 have since volunteered.

Ms Thanh Tan, 40, a journalist and film-maker in Seattle who helped start the group, said her father, a South Vietnamese officer, decided to leave Vietnam after being sent to a re-education camp for six months after the war's end. Like other allies of US forces, he was targeted for reprisal. He escaped by boat in October 1978, making it to Malaysia before arriving in Olympia, Washington.

Ms Tan's parents would often tell her stories about the Americans who helped them find jobs and resettle. Some befriended her parents, inviting them to their homes and offering meals. Vietnamese people who had resettled in America earlier also helped her father find work cleaning restaurants and schools while he took community college classes.

Her group now hopes to do the same for Afghans arriving with few belongings 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 what Afghans are going through in a way that very few others can," she said.

It is unclear just how many Vietnamese Americans are welcoming Afghan evacuees, but Ms Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, estimated that hundreds of Vietnamese Americans have reached out to the agency and volunteered to host or sponsor Afghan refugees.

"I see it over and over again," she said. "People who are on the receiving end of this work want to provide it to others."

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

Mr Abdul Aman Sediqi and his sons Elyan and Edris in their bedroom in Houston, Texas, following their evacuation from Afghanistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

They first met at a Walmart, where Dr Ho and her family helped pick out plates and kitchen utensils, along with Superman-themed clothing for Mr Sediqi's sons, who are one and three years old. The two families communicated through Ms Sanya Wafeq, Mr Sediqi's case manager at the YMCA International.

At first, Mr Sediqi said, he did not know why Dr Ho wanted to buy items for his family. But after she told him that she was a refugee from Vietnam, he said he understood.

"That family had the same experience like us - leaving everything behind," he said in an interview that was translated by his case manager.

Dr Ho, 52, who fled Vietnam when she was 12, said she assured Mr Sediqi that his family would eventually adjust to life in America, like her family did when they arrived in Houston decades ago.

"This is a land of opportunity," she told him. "Just work hard. Your American dream will be fulfilled."

She said her father worked as a mechanic to support his six children through college.

Dr Ho recalled the difficulties of picking up English when she first moved here, but told Mr Sediqi that his children would probably be able to learn the language quickly because they were much younger than she was.

In Springboro, Ohio, Mr Daklak Do has pledged to hire at least 15 Afghan refugees at his company, Advanced Engineering Solutions, which supplies 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 "return the favour" to Americans who accepted him decades ago.

"They gave me an opportunity to go to school, to open my own business," he said. "I really appreciate that, and that's why I want to return that to the people who are just like I was."

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