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Vietnamese American refugees who witnessed fall of Saigon urge U.S. to accept more Afghans

Witnessing the strife of Afghans is “heart-wrenching for families who escaped Saigon,” one community advocate said. “We know the desperation, the loss of homeland and fear and panic they must be feeling.”

On April 30, 1975, Thanh Duong scaled the 14-foot wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam. Duong, a civil engineer for the South Vietnamese government, had worked closely with the Americans during the Vietnam War. He knew he would be punished should the communists capture the capital.

Climbing into the embassy had been a last resort. Duong had exhausted every other avenue of escape: looking for a boat through connections in the navy, seeking help from the U.S. Agency for International Development, finding shelter in shuttered military housing.

“I failed at every channel,” said Duong, 76, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. “I was so frightened. I was thinking to myself, ‘I won’t be able to get out.’”

Eventually, with the help of U.S. reporters, Duong was admitted inside the building, where he waited in agony for hours before he was airlifted out of the country by a military helicopter. In subsequent years, nine of Duong’s siblings would join him in the U.S. Their children now live all across the country.   

On Monday, while watching viral video of desperate Afghans clinging onto a U.S. military jet, Duong began reliving one of the worst days of his life.

“When I saw the scenes from the news from pictures and videos,” he said, “I was just devastated. It’s complete chaos, just as it was in 1975.”

For Vietnamese Americans, the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end two decades of conflict triggers painful memories of another two-decade war a half-century ago. Since the Taliban seized Kabul, many refugees and their descendants have been recounting perilous escapes from Saigon and calling on Biden to immediately admit as many Afghan refugees as possible.

Witnessing the strife of Afghans is “heart-wrenching for families who escaped Saigon,” said Duong’s niece Minh-Thu Pham, a board member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, which is known as PIVOT. “We know the desperation, the loss of homeland and fear and panic they must be feeling.”

Pham, who helped draft an official statement on PIVOT’s behalf, urged Biden to remove the cap on the number of Afghan refugee visas and Special Immigrant Visas. Unlike her uncle, Pham’s father was fighting for the South Vietnamese army when Saigon fell. He was sent to a re-education camp for several years before he was able to flee by boat.

A slew of right-wing pundits and Republican lawmakers have deployed the Saigon comparisons to frame the Afghanistan crisis as a foreign policy debacle for Democrats. Pham said the finger-pointing is dangerous.

“It’s unfair to say this is ‘Biden’s Saigon,’ because it feels like politicizing the situation,” she said. “What we need to do is recognize the human consequences of war.”

Kham Moua, the director of national policy at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan is “very reminiscent” of the U.S.’s chaotic exit from Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s.

“There’s a large emphasis on Vietnam,” he said, “but we saw the same scenes in Cambodia and Laos. We saw photos of people scrambling to get on planes and boats.”

The Biden administration, Moua said, shouldn’t focus only on saving Afghans who directly assisted the U.S. during the war.

“As Southeast Asian refugees, we have seen the kind of impact U.S. military intervention can have in our countries,” Moua said. “It goes far beyond the individuals who helped the military. It has a widespread impact on the population at large.”

Less than a month after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, a law that provided over $450 million to admit 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, most of whom assisted U.S. forces during the war. The political willpower to support Southeast Asians was striking given that the law wasn’t popular with the public. A 1975 Gallup poll showed that only 36 percent of Americans supported resettlement, compared to 54 percent who opposed it.

After the initial move to protect the allies of the U.S. military, support and assistance for those left behind — families that suffered from poverty and famine, ethnic minorities persecuted by the ruling Communist Party — rapidly diminished, said Long Bui, a professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Returns of War: South Vietnam and the Price of Refugee Memory.”

Most of the 1.2 million Southeast Asian refugees who eventually resettled in the U.S. migrated by boat in the late 1970s and the 1980s. They paid exorbitant fees to cross the Pacific, where many were abducted, raped and killed.

“There’s a lagging response to the humanitarian crisis that came after the geopolitical crisis,” Bui said. “There was a sense that once the war was over people didn’t want to do anything with them.”

Some of the most prominent members of the Vietnamese diaspora say the U.S. has a moral responsibility to do better for Afghan civilians.

Bee Nguyen, Georgia’s first Vietnamese American state representative, tweeted about the enduring trauma of family separation that some of her relatives felt when they evacuated from their homeland. “I pray that our Afghan allies and partners make it out alive and have the chance to rebuild their lives, the same way my family was able to,” she wrote. “We owe it to them.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen tweeted that people were fleeing Vietnam and Laos more than a decade after the war ended. “The American obligation to the Afghans who wish to leave will remain for years too,” he wrote. “Nothing ends for Afghans with the departure of the last American.”

Duong, who considers himself fortunate to have been able to flee with the first wave of refugees, said he hopes Afghan war survivors are given the chance to rebuild their lives the way he was able to.

“We came to this country with nothing on our backs, but look at the way we have contributed to this country,” he said.