Monday, September 14, 2015

Meet A Refugee, Make A Friend For Life

One of my best friends is a refugee. America, the land of immigrants, has always had a hard time with allowing foreigners to live in our country. But in 1975, Nguyet was one of the beneficiaries of a huge U.S. resettlement program. The country brought hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon—that is, after America pulled out of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam War. How Nguyet ended up in sitting next to me at Hilltop Catholic High School in Pittsburgh is a long, sometimes bittersweet story that continues 40 years on.

You see, Nguyet's father worked for the Vietnamese Embassy in Laos and her family was Catholic, so staying in the now-Communist Vietnam would have meant persecution or worse. For Vietnamese like this family, the U.S. government created the biggest resettlement program ever, that operated between April 23 and Nov. 1, 1975. It wasn't the cleanest operation, and events moved so fast that not all got out by the end of the year. The first wave took scheduled flights, after the fall some were airlifted out, and after that U.S. Navy took the next wave to “reception centers” in the Philippines and Guam. After several months, the refugees were flown to temporary homes at one of four military bases in the U.S., where they awaited homes.

Pennsylvania took thousands
Ngyget's family—like about 50% of Vietnamese refugees--was sponsored by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (which is an official U.S. government-recognized voluntary agency that still helps refugees.) Pennsylvania's governor at the time, Milton Shapp, wanted to do something for the refugees. The state took thousands, though California and Texas took most. My friend, her mother, two brothers, and a sister ended up living in rooms above a bar on Warrington Ave. thanks to the generosity of a member of St. George's parish. It wasn't a rich parish, but it did what it could. The father, a South Vietnamese officer, stayed back until he was sure his family was safe and sound in the Philippines. (Do any of my high school buddies remember the name of the bar or have photos from this time?)

I was assigned as Nguyet's buddy in junior year, and she fell into our group of friends. I quickly realized that she was much better educated than I was, and that she understood most of what she read in English—but wasn't yet able to express herself. She did tell me that she was sad, worried about her father, and suffered from migraines.Her French, however, was years ahead of anyone's in the class (before the Americans went to war there, Vietnam was a French colony). She invited me to her apartment to celebrate her birthday, where I saw her happy for the first time. I met her mom and siblings, and had my first taste of Champagne!

My friend Nguyet today
Before the year was out, Nguyet said she was moving to be with family in Philadelphia. Family? She said she would feel better there. Didn't she feel OK with us? It was then I lost touch. I wrote her a letter, but it went unanswered. Little did I know that times were hard. Thanks to social media, we were reunited in 2009, and I learned the rest of her story—not an usual one for this generation of Vietnamese in America.

Right after the family was reunited with the father in 1977, Nguyet's mom passed away and her father had a stroke—and died a broken man 13 years later. It was hard on Nguyet and her siblings, now orphans. Nguyet married in 1983, and moved to Texas, but her husband died right after her son was born in 1988. Fast-forward to today: She has a great job at a legal library.

“Can you imagine that a young Vietnamese teenager, who spoke very little English, is now working … for an international law firm ...? “My siblings are all professional and productive individuals now. They are doing very well and living the all American dreams. And we are all American citizens. We pay our taxes,” she told me in an email yesterday.

“Yes, I've been thinking how extremely lucky we were when we came to the U.S. 40 years ago. The U.S. took us in with open arms and encouraged us to dream big dreams. My family is so thankful for all that we received from the Americans like you,” she wrote, which brings me to tears. I didn't think I did much at all, and I definitely wasn't trained as an English teacher!

I asked her about today's refugee crisis: “In my opinion, the refugee crisis in Europe is very complicated, I feel for both sides. Not all migrants are war refugees. The economic migrants are mixed in. Yes, the refugees want safety and a good future for their families. They think of education and the chance to have good lives for their children.”

How will the new migrants fit in?
“On the other hand, the Europeans leaders have their own problems already, like unemployment ... One question that I have on my mind lately is this: EU members are mostly Christian or secular countries, how are these migrants going to fit in? The EU members will have a lot of headaches with accommodating them while trying to maintain and reserve their own cultures and beliefs.”

Good question. Nyuget's family benefited from a fairly well-organized resettlement program. Plus, like my friend's family, the majority of the 1975 immigrants were well-educated, wealthier and possessed better English proficiency. And her family still had a difficult time. Most Americans at the time were opposed to the program. Since the fall of Saigon, America has welcomed over 1 million refugees from Vietnam, who have assimilated fairly rapidly. One reason is their strong family and ethnic ties.

My friend's story tells me that as hard as it is for us to open our countries up to refugees, we have a responsibility to do that. And more. We have to offer not only homes but also our hearts. Because we are a land of immigrants. Because we factor in the human cost of war. Because the Statue of Liberty carries these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”