Local News

War Refugees: Then and Now

In a scenario tragically like the fall of Afghanistan last month, the collapse of the South Vietnam government sparked a massive and chaotic evacuation of Americans and their Vietnamese allies.

As Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, Thuy Do Le, a newlywed schoolteacher, remembers asking her mother, “Should I go, or should I stay?”

“My mother didn’t answer my question right away,” Thuy said. “She walked away. A bit later she came back; she didn’t even look at me. Her voice was very stern, saying, ‘You must go. You cannot stay.’ That’s the greatest sacrifice a mother can make for her child.”

Thus began Thuy and her husband Hong’s journey as refugees to the United States. She would not see her mother again until 1991.

Hong Le and Thuy Do Le were once war refugees from Vietnam. Thuy holds one of the bags she brought to the US as a refugee in 1975.

The long journey to the U.S.

Thuy and Hong were married in Vietnam in 1974. Though she came from a poor family, Thuy was able to graduate from high school and college and become a teacher. Hong was a pilot for the South Vietnam military. Back in 1966, as the war in Vietnam escalated, Hong was sent to flight training school in the United States. Upon his return, he flew many missions for South Vietnam, surviving numerous scrapes with death and more than one crash landing.

Hong and Thuy met at a swimming club. “I met her by chance,” Hong said, laughing. “At the time, I loved to go swimming at the club. We were the only two people swimming in the early morning.”

About a month later, they ran into each other again. “I was walking to the movies, and she came by on a motorbike. I asked her for a ride,” Hong said. They went to a movie together. Hong bought her a fancy ice cream coffee, something Thuy could never afford. Eventually, she asked him to marry her.

He said yes.

About six months later, the South Vietnam government collapsed.

Hong and Thuy were able to get in a small fishing boat, along with thousands who were trying to get to the ocean for passage out of the country. When they reached the open sea, they were picked up by the USS Kirk, then they boarded a Vietnamese naval ship that took them to the Philippines, then to a refugee processing center on Guam.

From Guam, they flew to the United States and ended up in a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, one of several refugee camps set up in the US. From there, they were placed with a sponsor in Tustin, Orange County, California, a Marine colonel who housed them in a trailer, with no indoor plumbing, on his property.

“With our first sponsor, I was allowed to come into the house only to do work like a maid,” Thuy said. “As a literature major, I read a lot and it felt like Gone with the Wind. They treated me like a slave.”

Finding a new home and family

Unhappy with the living conditions in Tustin, Hong and Thuy gathered all their possessions into two bags each and walked to a Lutheran church in Orange. When the service ended, they spoke to the pastor and asked for help.

That pastor called Rich Schieber who was pastor of the First Lutheran Church in Fullerton and also worked with Church World Services finding sponsors for the over 30,000 refugees at Camp Pendleton. Through his volunteer work, Schieber helped around 1,000 refugee families find sponsors and homes.

Rich was also president of the Rotary Club in Fullerton. He called fellow Rotarian Jim Vanderburg, and asked if he and his wife Willa would be willing to sponsor a refugee couple from Vietnam.

Left to right: Jim Vanderburg, Willa Vanderburg, Thuy Do Le, Hong Le, and Rich Scheiber.

Jim and Willa met Rich, Hong, and Thuy at the First Lutheran church in Fullerton. Later that evening after a long conversation, Jim called Rich to ask what their responsibilities would be as sponsors of Hong and Thuy.

Jim remembers Rich telling him, “You’re financially responsible for them for the rest of their lives.”

After talking for an hour or more about Hong and Thuy’s life in Vietnam, their journey to the US, and difficult life in a refugee camp, Willa told Jim, “It’s only money.” They, like so many across the United States at that time, chose to become Hong and Thuy’s sponsors. They helped them get into an apartment on Commonwealth Ave. in Fullerton.

Thuy remembers Jim giving her $20 to buy groceries at the Alpha Beta supermarket.

“I felt like a little kid at a toy store,” Thuy said.

In stark contrast to their first sponsor, Jim and Willa were friendly, generous, and compassionate toward Hong and Thuy. They not only helped them find decent housing, but helped them find jobs and acclimate to life in the United States.

“They were very respectful and very human,” Thuy said. “We felt like part of their family.”

Jim invited Hong and Thuy to share their story at a Rotary club meeting. Afterward, a hat was passed around and about $600 was collected for the couple. Eventually, Hong and Thuy found stability and even prosperity in the United States. Hong became a plumbing contractor, and Thuy became one of the most successful real estate agents in Riverside County. They had two children—Phong, born in 1980, and Tiffany, born in 1984.

Phong graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and was recently made a Commander. His proud parents shared a photo of Phong with President George W. Bush.

Hong and Thuy’s son Phong with former president George W. Bush.

With the wealth she has made in real estate, Thuy has sponsored schools in poor villages in Vietnam, helping children get the resources they need to improve their lives.

“I go to villages where people have no shoes, no warm clothes,” Thuy said. “We are lucky to be in the United States. We are not better than any of those kids. We are just lucky. So, for those of us who are lucky, our duty is to give back to those who are not so lucky.”

The successful and happy lives of Hong, Thuy, and their children was made possible by the generosity and compassion of people like Rich, Jim, and Willa.

Reflecting on the Vietnam refugee crisis in 1975, Rich said, “I’ve heard the story so many times, of the escapes. We’re living it now. I almost hate to turn on the news today and see those people on those planes in Afghanistan. I practically weep when I see it…The life of a refugee is so incredibly difficult.”

Refugees Today

After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, the US and allied countries evacuated 124,000 people from Kabul, including 6,000 US citizens.

These refugees have been housed in camps and on military bases around the  world. US officials have said that at least 50,000 Afghans who helped the US or who might be targeted by the Taliban are expected to be admitted into the United States in the coming month.

According to the New York Times, over 31,000 Afghans have already arrived in the US, with many still being processed on military bases.

Many national and local non-profits and charity groups are working to help resettle the Afghan refugees.

Here are some groups that are looking for financial and volunteer support to assist Afghan refugees:

•Access California Services: www.accesscal.org

• Sahaba Initiative: www.sahabainitiative.org

•International Institute of Los Angeles: www.iilosangeles.org

•World Relief Southern California: www.worldrelief.org/socal

•Tiyya Foundation: www.tiyya.org

•The International Rescue Committee: www.rescue.org

•Voice of Refugees: www.vorservices.org

•The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee: www.ajsc.af