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Once internally displaced Vietnamese Americans mobilize to help Afghans

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In the middle of the night, Uyen Nguyen trudged with her mother and three siblings through a grassy wetland until they reached the ocean’s edge, where a small, dilapidated fishing boat ran aground on the sand. It left with 31 people on it.

It was 1985, a decade after Saigon fell, and their last attempt to flee Vietnam. Days later, the boat’s engine sputtered, stranding the passengers at sea for about a month, forcing them to collect rainwater to support themselves. Ten people died, including Ms Nguyen’s mother and two of her siblings. The others, including Mrs. 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 that escape after seeing footage of Afghans crammed into US military planes in August, desperate to leave a country devastated by decades of war. The undeniable parallels, she said, have forced her to help Afghans whose situation is similar to what she experienced.

“We can’t sit back, especially since we’re either refugees or refugee children,” said Ms. Nguyen, 46, a Seattle entrepreneur who eventually immigrated to the United States with her brother as unaccompanied minors. “I don’t see an option not to do something.”

A day after the Afghan government fell, Ms. Nguyen a group of friends with the proposal to create an organization that would recruit Vietnamese-American families to house the Afghans who flock to the Seattle area. The five friends founded Viets4Afghans, which initially wanted to recruit 75 families – a nod to the year Saigon fell. More than 100 have volunteered.

Thanh Tan, 40, a journalist and filmmaker in Seattle who helped set up the group, said her father, a South Vietnamese officer, decided to leave Vietnam after being sent to a re-education camp six months after the war ended. . Like other allies of US forces, he was the target of reprisals. He escaped by boat in October 1978 and reached Malaysia before arriving at Olympia, Wash.

Mrs. Tan’s parents often told her stories about the Americans who helped them find jobs and resettle. Some befriended her parents, invited them to their homes and offered meals. Vietnamese people who had previously settled in America also helped her father find work cleaning restaurants and schools while taking classes at the community university.

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

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

Among those taking in refugees are Thuy Do, 39, a primary care physician, and her husband, Jesse Robbins, 39, a self-defense instructor, who have sheltered 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 have moved into that house in recent weeks. Mrs. Do and Mr. Robbins stopped by to spend time with them, Mr. Qadiri said, carrying items like a teapot and a television.

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

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

“It’s nice to pay it a little in advance,” said Mrs. Do.

It’s unclear how many Vietnamese Americans are welcoming Afghan evacuees, but Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, estimates that hundreds of Vietnamese Americans have contacted the agency and volunteered to host or sponsor. Afghan refugees.

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

For Abdul Aman Sediqi, 36, who arrived in Houston with his wife and two sons on Aug. 16 after fleeing Kabul, Tram Ho played an important role in furnishing their apartment.

They first met at a Walmart, where Mrs. Ho and her family helped sort out dishes and utensils, along with Superman-themed clothing for Mr. Sediqi’s sons, who are 1 and 3 years old. The two families communicated through Sanya Wafeq, Mr. Sediqi’s case manager at the YMCA International.

At first, Mr. Sediqi said, he didn’t know why Mrs. Ho wanted to buy things for his family. But after she told him she was a refugee from Vietnam, he said he understood.

“That 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 his family would eventually adjust to life in America, as 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 while in college.

Ms. Ho recalled how difficult it was to learn English when she first moved, but told Mr. Sediqi that his children would probably learn the language quickly because they were much younger than her.

In Springboro, Ohio, Daklak Do has pledged to employ 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 cousin. 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 favor” to 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 that and that’s why I want to give that back to the people who are like me.”

Other Vietnamese Americans organize fundraisers to collect donations for resettlement agencies. The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, which has called on the Biden administration to ensure that high-risk Afghan refugees are not subject to a numerical ceiling, has raised about half of its $40,000 goal, said Minh-Thu Pham, a board member of the group. . The organization will also provide career counseling to Afghans through a partnership with Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees find work.

Nam Loc Nguyen, 77, a former director of the immigration and refugee division of Catholic charities in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, helped organize a live telethon fundraiser that aired on a Vietnamese-language channel last month. The concert, which featured performances by Afghan and Vietnamese singers, raised more than $160,000, he said. The money will be split between the Afghan Literacy Foundation and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

mr. Nguyen, a well-known MC in Huntington Beach, California,

said the US withdrawal in Afghanistan reminded him of the fear he felt in 1975 after leaving his family in Vietnam, days before Saigon fell.

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

On April 25, Mr. Nguyen’s friend, 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 let through. His friend insisted that he come anyway. Mr. Nguyen did arrive at the airport and his friend told him to stay so he could reunite with his family.

Mr. Nguyen waited for his family to arrive and scanned bus after bus of evacuees. Days later, a US Marine warned that the Communists would attack soon and that he had to take the next flight. Although his family was yet to arrive, 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 and settled in Belgium before finally joining Mr. Nguyen in the United States. Over the next 14 years, his remaining 11 family members fled one by one.

Mr Nguyen said he cried when he saw the last plane take off from Kabul, remembering how it took off on one of the last flights from Vietnam.

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

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