In 1975 I decided I was going to get me a refugee, and I did. A lot of them it turned out, two related families, ten people altogether, not counting the 11-year-old boy I got later who became my son.
Saigon fell in April and the U.S. evacuated upwards of 136,000 South Vietnamese to the United States though the Inter-Agency Task Force on Indochinese Refugee Resettlement that President Gerald Ford set up.
Thanks to the congressman I once worked for, I got a phone introduction to someone at the Inter-Agency. I was told I needed an organization; there would be no individual sponsors. Large non-profit agencies were the ones to match refugees to sponsors, and those sponsors would be churches and other charity groups.
Okay. This meant a visit to my pastor. I was probably talking like a suburban Jesus freak just back from Bible camp, but he didn’t blink, not once. (He was more startled later when I told him I had decided to enter seminary). He said he thought the congregation would agree. The congregation did, and my next series of phone calls went out to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. They directed me to the temporary intake office at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas. The case worker I spoke with replied, “Sure, how soon would you like them?”
The speed in processing families through Ft. Chaffee was astonishing. From May to the end of December, fifty thousand Vietnamese made Ft. Chaffee their temporary home. Ft. Chaffee was one of four centers, the others located in California, Pennsylvania, and Florida, but it received the lion’s share of the Indochinese refugees. In the space of only a few weeks, they were interviewed, given resident cards, and social security numbers. Dossiers were prepared and given to their sponsors. It was over by Christmas.
Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese April 30. Mrs. Nguyen, with her two children and her mother, got off the plane in Topeka, Kansas, July 9. (Her husband, an army lieutenant, got out by another route several months later.) Her brother, Mr. Nguyen, and his family arrived two weeks later by bus on an early, early morning. They traveled by bus because he thought it would let them see something of the country. Good plan. The day before departure he learned it was to be a night time drive.
Mr. Nguyen lost every important document he ever owned, except his diploma from a French university and a letter of reference from the Australian ambassador to South Vietnam, praising his work as second secretary at the embassy. He could speak French (Parisian and country accents) and English (with an Aussie accent, something he called American, and a stuffy Oxfordian imitation).
These were not “poor” refugees. They were skilled, educated, and eager to work, as were nearly all who arrived in Topeka that summer through the early fall. No labor was beneath them. Mr. Nguyen was fortunate. Thanks to his diploma he got a temporary Kansas teacher’s certificate and the school district hired him to teach English to new Vietnamese students, a position giving him tremendous respect and influence in the new immigrant community. His wife made her own impression on me; she worked tireless hours at a Burger King.
I realized the conditions from which they fled when he asked me to take him to a police station so he could get permission to form a Vietnamese society in Topeka. He did not believe me when I told him permission like that wasn’t required.
Our congregation was the first in Topeka to sponsor a refugee family, but soon Topeka had many sponsors and many Vietnamese. I knew they were affecting the city when I noticed how one-hundred pound bags of long grain white rice began appearing in grocery aisles.
To this day I cannot explain it, what obsessed me. I had only found my way vaguely back to the Christian faith after an extended intellectual if not physical absence. I was 27, a political staffer with the Kansas secretary of state, and getting ready to run for the legislature the next year. That is what I was thinking about.
But watching people fleeing South Vietnam was unnervingly moving. In an instant, here was a new thing I was thinking about. I had to do this . . . had to if I was going to put any flesh on my rediscovered faith. Whatever was required, it was going to happen. I have taken part in or led other resettlements since, but nothing so possessed me as the Vietnamese in Topeka.
It is this experience I bring to the question of admitting Syrian refugees. Twenty some state governors, all Republicans save one Democrat, have declared they will not allow Syrians within their states. While governors cannot “ban” from their states anybody admitted to the United States, they can make sure their state agencies will complicate things. They can make resettlement hard on everyone. They can also whip up unholy hysteria.
I cannot help but believe it would be a good thing for our country—and a bad thing for the real terrorists these latest victims are fleeing—if we could figure out how to let these folks in peaceably, with proper vetting for their own safety and ours.
Russell E. Saltzman is a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.
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