Commentary: The Refugee Struggles From the Afghanistan War Are Reminiscent of the Resettlement After Vietnam


Like many Americans old enough to remember the fall of Saigon, the video of people being evacuated from Kabul brings back memories of another time and another war.

Those memories — along with some words from the past — remain vivid as the news is filled with reports of refugees struggling to get out of Afghanistan by crossing borders into other countries and controversy over accepting evacuees hoping for resettlement in the United States.

Washington state was in the forefront of accepting refugees from Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon, thanks to then-Gov. Dan Evans directing the state to develop a resettlement program at a time when other states were working to keep refugees out.

The Biden administration deserves its fair share of criticism for the handling of the Afghan evacuation, but the United States did manage to fly more people out of Kabul in August than it did out of Saigon in 1975. While the images of people falling to their deaths after trying to hitch a ride on a C-17 are horrific, they pale in comparison to the images of the C-5A that crashed and burned, killing some 200, while attempting a "baby lift" to bring orphans and aid workers out of Saigon in April 1975.

Washington became the new home for more than 10,000 Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian immigrants. By 1982, some 2,000 had settled in Spokane, which was when, as a young reporter for The Spokesman-Review, I joined photographer Bart Rayniak in chronicling a Hmong family adapting to life in an American city after fleeing their village in the Laotian highlands.

The father, Ka Toua Xiong, had been a commander in the Hmong army the CIA had recruited to help fight the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army. His wife, brother and seven children had left their village, traveled across Laos and swum the Mekong River to escape the Pathet Lao, who sided with the communists. They arrived in Spokane on a cold October day with nothing but the clothes on their back and the promise of help from the Inland Empire Baptist Association, and state and federal government programs. By then, the family numbered 11, with a new baby born in a refugee camp.

They were resilient, hard-working and industrious, despite the language barrier that took them time to overcome. The children went to school. Ka Toua worked at Sears. His wife, Pao Mee Yang, like many Hmong women, sold embroidered fabrics at booths at various fairs and gatherings in Riverfront Park.

Later that year, I was in Thailand on an assignment that took me to a camp where tens of thousands of refugees waited at what they hoped would be their last stop before coming to the United States or other Western countries. It was supposed to be a place where people waited no more than six months for the final paperwork to clear. Some had been there two years or more.

I talked to the director of the refugee camp at Phanat Nikhom, a few hours out of Bangkok, who said there were more than 100,000 refugees farther inland, either at camps in Thailand or just across the borders of Laos or Cambodia, but ready to move, depending on military offensives. His words come back to me now while watching the exodus from Afghanistan:

"You promised to take care of these people."

The United States only kept part of that promise after the fall of Vietnam and took years to make good on it for thousands. Reneging was partly political, partly economic, partly xenophobic and partly just a nation's struggles with facing the aftermath of a lost war.

Reneging did not fall on strict partisan lines. California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, threatened to block any Southeast Asian refugees from settling in California. Evans, a Republican, welcomed them with open arms.

Almost 50 years after Evans and Washington stepped up, America has a new promise to keep to the people who got out and those who are still trying.

Time proved Evans right. The refugees and their children became valuable members of American communities. Spokane later welcomed people fleeing religious persecution in the Soviet Union, and others fleeing war in Africa and the Middle East.

To its credit, the state again is prepared to do its part. Both Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Republican leaders of the Legislature have said the state is ready and willing to welcome Afghan refugees who will follow in the journey of becoming American.

Some 15 years after chronicling the Xiong family's resettlement in Spokane, Rayniak and I had a chance to catch up with Ka Toua, Pao Mee and some of their children, who were by then in high school and college.

As has been repeated with each generation of the American melting pot, they had adjusted to many of the differences between the cultures of Laos and America.

They missed their homeland, although they didn't regret their decision to come to America.

But, Ka Toua said, his teenagers do give him headaches, staying up late, tying up the phone and talking back.

"Children here don't listen to their parents," he said.

Congratulations, I told him. You are officially an American dad.