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Exploring The Parallels Between The Southeast Asian Refugee Crisis And The Current Situation In Afghanistan

Mike Hoa Nguyen
Professor Mike Hoa Nguyen's mother, Hong Nguyen, (Pictured: In the middle wearing the patterned vest and patterned pants), arrived with her family to the United States and met their American sponsors in Seattle of 1975.

The images of Afghans flooding the Kabul airport bear a striking resemblance to the images of the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. People desperate to escape are risking their lives as U.S. troops pull out of the country.

And like the aftermath of the Vietnam War, we could be facing another refugee crisis. "It’s just that there’s so much parallel and when you read news articles [about] Afghanistan you could just put Vietnam in there and that’s the tragedy of it all for me to see how much parallel there is," says Chia Vang, professor of history and the interim chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at UW-Milwaukee.

Vang explains that the parallels between the refugee crisis of Vietnam and what's happening in Afghanistan all start with the long history of American occupation in each country. The United States occupied Vietnam for over 20 years — approximately the same amount of time that the country spent in Afghanistan.

She also notes that that both Vietnam and Afghanistan were both in the middle of intense turmoil, especially after American troops pulled out of the countries. "What we probably see in the news is just probably so little of the struggles that people are going through now," notes Vang. "I just feel so much pain for the people who are living in Afghanistan now and are trying to get out. There's just so much that I know that we're not seeing."

Mike Hoa Nguyen is an assistant professor at the University of Denver and a board member for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. The center is urging government officials on all levels to take action immediately. Nguyen suggests the Biden administration increase the resettlement limits, evacuate all Afghans beyond those eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, and keep as many airports open as possible. "What we know from the Southeast Asian refugee experience about what's happening in Afghanistan [is this] will most likely just be the first wave of refugees," Nguyen explains.

Vang emphasizes that there is a similar sense of fear that Southeast Asian refugees experienced after the fall of Saigon. "Thousands and thousands and thousands of [people] fled by air, by sea, by land and that just continued to trickle because of the fear of what might happen to them," Vang says. "I think that's exactly what's happening right now in Afghanistan."

They both agree that the U.S. needs to construct a unified national system for refugee settlement. Vang says when Southeast Asian refugees fled Saigon and relocated to America, they lost important consistency and support. Both Vang and Nguyen point out that Americans will have to step up and help Afghan refugees feel at home. "This includes things you know as simple as airport pickups, meal assistance, mentorship help, helping register children for school," Nguyen recommends.

Nguyen and Vang come from refugee families effected by the end of the Vietnam War. Nguyen's parents arrived from Saigon to the United States in 1975 and were welcomed by their American sponsors. His family still keeps in contact with their sponsor, "We saw them about a decade ago when they flew out to California, and we had a big reunion."

Ultimately, both are calling for education and critical thinking on how the past and present are connected. "We need to educate ourselves about the situation because in all my research over the years, has been that very few people at the local level knew very much about our communities," Vang says. "And so I hope that I and everyone, we can take it upon ourselves to learn a little bit more about the 20 years of our involvement in that part of the world, maybe even before we became involved in that part of the world."

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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