1975: The Vietnamese Refugee in Our Spare Bedroom

Photo credit: mobquotes.com

Watching things play out at the Kabul airport make me sad because I have seen this movie before.  The US invades a country, makes promises, loses motivation, decides we have had enough, packs up, goes home, breaks promises, leaving people to scramble for their lives.

Saigon, Vietnam 1975

Credit: airspacemag.com

Kabul, Afghanistan 2021

Credit: The Guardian

I believe that part of being a good citizen is taking responsibility for our country’s actions, even when we disagreed with them. 

A Good Rule about National and Individual Responsibility

Secretary of State Colin Powell stated this philosophy clearly in 2002 while warning President George W. Bush about the dangers of invading Iraq.

Credit: harrytapper,com

“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”

No matter how you felt about the U.S. invading Afghanistan, or remaining there for 20 years, or suddenly pulling out, today’s reality is that we will have many Afghan refugees coming to the U.S. needing support.  If you can, I would suggest considering helping an individual or family get resettled.  I did it in 1975 as part of my personal penitence for the U.S. role in Vietnam.

The fall of Saigon and the beginning of that refugee crisis

In 1975 Saigon fell after the withdrawal of American troops and the scenes of chaos as people fled for their lives are dishearteningly similar to day.  Beginning in April 1975 and continuing over the next four years the U.S. opened its doors to those fleeing danger, bringing in more that 300,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. (The U.S. had dragged the latter two countries into the war in Vietnam, destabilizing their governments, creating additional refugee flows.)  Many of these refugees were quickly flown to the US to be processed in military bases such as Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego.  From April through October 1975 over 50,000 refugees were processed through Camp Pendleton by the First Marine Division.

Credit: ABC News
Credit: VOA Special Reports

The refugee in our spare bedroom

There were so many refugees at Pendleton that they were advertising on the radio with a message which boiled down to, “Got a spare bedroom in your home and some room in your heart? How about coming down to Camp Pendleton and picking up a refugee to stay with you while they get settled!”

I was a firefighter in the San Diego area at the time and was married to Jerrie Stringer.  That radio ad struck a chord with me. My brother Bill had been drafted and sent to Vietnam where he lost his mind, and his way in the world, and he never recovered. I had avoided his fate by declining Uncle Sam’s invitation for a 13 month, all-expenses-paid trip to Vietnam, opting instead to gamble on a six year commitment to the California National Guard. But I always had this lingering feeling that the war was wrong, the government was lying to us, but other than vote for Bobby Kennedy in the California presidential primary, I really never took any action on my principles.

When I heard that radio commercial I suggested to Jerrie that maybe we had a duty to help a refugee since our country had broken their country.  She agreed and we drove on up to Camp Pendleton, filled out a few forms, and came home with a Vietnamese Marine whose name was U Van Dang. (Unfortunately I have lost pictures from this time period and have no picture of U. That’s the downside of 45 years of moving around to work where I was needed and doing adventures.)  Having him live with us, helping him regain his footing, and seeing him come out of his shell and shine, is one my most satisfying and important accomplishments.

That first day we took U to an Asian supermarket to choose his preferred food, secretly hoping to be introduced to some exotic cuisine, but he chose white bread, bologna and oranges. We wanted to explain he could choose anything in the store, but there was a complete language barrier so we shrugged and moved on. 

That afternoon I went out to mow the front lawn and U spotted me through the window, rushed out and and with energetic pantomiming indicated his passion for gardening.  As he mowed I sat on the front steps, absolutely enthralled by how “unamerican” he was in his technique.  Every red-blooded American knows you mow methodically: straight line out, 180 degree turn, straight line back, two inch overlap. I sometimes would buck tradition and make a circuit around the perimeter then spiral my way into the middle.  U attacked the task with gusto and no apparent plan.  He would be mowing the north edge, spot a large clump of grass on the southwest corner, back a bee line for it, cutting a swath through the middle, then take offense at a tall growth in the middle of the lawn across the sidewalk so he would race over and take a whack at that.  My neighbor walked over and saw down next to me, smoking his pipe, and watched for a while as U eventually hit every part of the lawn in random order.  He finally took the pipe out of his mouth and nodded. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.”

Six months later I was trimming the hedge and watched U mow, straight line out, 180 degree turn, straight line back, and I felt a bit sad to see the loss of that rebellious lawn-cutting spontaneity he had arrived with, but I suppose it was just part of U learning how to fit in as a new American.

Credit: Institute.wycliffcollege.ca

Life with U

 The Methodist Church’s resettlement education program had a program in Chula Vista and we would drop U off weekday mornings where he would receive a loud “hail-fellow-well-met” greeting in Vietnamese.  Occasionally we would host little parties at our house where he and some of his fellow refugees would sit around the backyard, talking a mile a minute in such an foreign sounding language, drinking and laughing and some of the women would shyly approach us to practice their English.

As these folks were so warm and kind to me it made me sad to remember the jokes I had heard during my time in the army. “Join the army, visit exotic lands, meet interesting people, and kill them.”

When I was on duty at the fire station U loved to walk down and play foosball, a game which required no language, only boundless enthusiasm which U certainly had.  All the firefighters grew to like him, including several Vietnam vets who were skeptical at first, but U’s infectious happiness soon won them over.

Credit: Detroit Free Press

His name did cause confusion at times.  I arrived at the station one morning and a fellow firefighter said,

“I saw U at the supermarket yesterday.”

Being often impatient and unkind during my PTSD period I replied, “I wasn’t at the supermarket yesterday, you blind bastard.”

“Not you, U! You ignorant prick.” (Touché!)

U lived with us for a couple of years, married, was certified as a welder and built his life as an expat.  I lost touch with him when I moved to South Dakota to be a lawyer for the American Indians, but remembering how grateful and helpful and kind he was when we gave him a home and our support, I feel some satisfaction  in knowing that I did a little bit to heal the wound my country and I had inflicted.

It’s time, who is next to step up?

Credit: seattletimes.com

There are many ways to help a refugee today.   You can donate money to a reputable NGO doing resettlement work. You can go online to contact local agencies which do resettlement work in your area and see if they need a volunteer in their office, or by driving a refugee to the supermarket, doctor visits, help sign up their children for school, or explain how to use public transit, etc. I guarantee that your time spent with a refugee will warm your heart. No one suddenly leaves behind everything they own, everyone they love, to flee their country unless they have no other choice.

If you are disturbed about the images you are seeing, take action.  I believe that by reaching out to help someone else, you will find some solace in this broken world.

Plus, it can’t hurt your karma!

Final note: It occurred to me after I wrote this that my time with U and the other Vietnamese we came to know is the reason I spent most of my legal career working with people in immigration detention who were trying to get legal status and avoid being returned to their country where people waited to kill them. I owe U a debt of gratitude for giving direction to my life. It is odd how when we try to give, we receive so much more back.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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