Vietnam voices: Locals share emotional response to Afghan refugee crisis

Foreigners board a Qatar Airways aircraft
Foreigners board a Qatar Airways aircraft at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Some 200 foreigners, including Americans, flew out of Afghanistan on an international commercial flight from Kabul airport on Thursday, Sept. 9, the first such large-scale departure since U.S and foreign forces concluded their frantic withdrawal at the end of last month.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS/Bernat Armangue)

The scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport last month as Afghans fled after the Taliban takeover stirred a variety of emotions for refugees from the end of another long American war. Local Vietnamese Americans drew parallels between the desperation of the people scrambling to board military aircraft and their families’ own frantic departures from their country over 40 years ago.

“The situation has created a lot of sadness for me,” said Louie Nguyen, a Carmel Valley resident, whose family left Vietnam after Saigon fell in 1975. “When I see all of those people in the belly of that giant plane, I look at all those faces and see myself, my parents, my siblings and cousins.

“I have an enormous amount of sadness knowing all the pain, the trauma and the misery that we lived through. It’s almost like a shared trauma is created between us,” he said. “It gives me a lot of anxiety knowing that there are families still trying to get out.”

As a young child, Nguyen said he had to leave everything behind except for just a backpack. His biggest fear was being separated from his family, which he was for about four or five chaotic and scary hours.

When the family left Vietnam they went into a refugee camp and then to Europe to await their sponsorship to the U.S. His family was eventually resettled in Tulsa, Oklahoma where they struggled but built a new life.

In the United States’ humanitarian evacuation, a group of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients, Afghans who were employed by or worked on the behalf of the U.S. government, are being relocated to San Diego.

Jewish Family Service is one of four refugee resettlement agencies in San Diego that has been processing and welcoming SIVs from Afghanistan, along with International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities and the Alliance for African Assistance, which has pledged to sponsor 510 Afghan refugees.

JFS has welcomed SIV recipients for many years but the number and pace is unlike anything they have seen before, said Etleva Bejko, director of refugee and immigration services for JFS San Diego.

In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, JFS assisted 129 refugees and SIV new arrivals from more than a dozen of countries, including Afghanistan. Prior to this humanitarian crisis, JFS had resettled 76 refugees and SIVs this year, however, since Aug. 6, they have already resettled 89 individuals (18 families). With the situation constantly evolving, they do not have an estimate as to how many more will arrive in the coming days, weeks or months, Bejko said.

Many were assigned to JFS with little more than 24 hours’ notice before arrival.

“It’s been very challenging… We’re overwhelmed in trying to meet the needs of a much larger group of people coming in a much faster period of time,” Bejko said. “It’s been overwhelming but it is what JFS does.”

Bejko said the majority of the cases JFS has seen are families of four to seven people, including younger children. The SIVs all have a prior connection to the San Diego region through family or friends.

For the refugees, the experience has been a confusing and overwhelming whirlwind and quite a few left family behind and are fearful they will be targeted. Bejko said JFS wants to do everything they can to help: “To go through this journey without any supportive hand would have been so much worse….it is what makes us keep doing this work,” she said.

In 1978, Solana Beach resident Dinh Albright’s family was among the thousands of “boat people” who fled Vietnam. She was only one year old and had been sick in the hospital when her parents snuck her out in the middle of the night, fleeing carrying everything they could hold.

She doesn’t remember the boat but has heard the story so many times from her parents that she feels it.

“It was traumatizing,” Albright said. “They were out at sea for a long time and they didn’t know how to swim. They said it felt like it was forever that they were on that boat.”

On their terrifying journey they were robbed by pirates and eventually landed in Malaysia, where they lived in a refugee camp before being sponsored by a church and resettled in Orange County’s “Little Saigon”.

Albright was struck deeply by the desperation she saw of the people trying to leave Afghanistan.

“It felt so much like what happened to us back then. It’s sad, because you’d think we’d learn better not to repeat history and do it the right way but I don’t know what the right way is,” Albright said, noting there are differences of opinion within her own family about how the U.S. withdrawal was handled. “I feel especially bad for the people left behind there and I’m worried about what’s going to happen to them.”

When her parents fled they were young, only in their 20s, and it was scary for them to uproot and go to a new country where they don’t speak the language, leaving behind family and friends and struggling against stereotypes and financially. They went to school and worked hard to provide opportunities for their child.

“Growing up, they were so fearful of the outside world,” Albright said. “They just never felt that they belonged, especially when they were forced to leave their country.”

She is an American, but she admits there are still times when she feels like an outsider. In Solana Beach, she is part of a group of four Vietnamese friends who call themselves “The Saigon Sisters.”

Carmel Valley resident Tu Diep was still just a glint in his parents’ eyes when his family fled Vietnam—he was born in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Following a border war in 1979, the communist Vietnamese government sought to expel people of Chinese ancestry from the country. As his surname “Diep” is Chinese-derived, all of the men in his family had to leave.

“They didn’t want to go,” Diep of his mother and late father. “In the long run, I think they would’ve been happier if they had stayed in their country.”

In Hong Kong, his parents were sponsored by a Catholic church in Vancouver, Canada where they would be resettled. Diep said the resettlement was particularly hard on his father. When they left Vietnam he was a bright, charismatic young man in his 30s who had built a relatively successful career as an accountant.

“It affected him very personally, he lamented that those that got to stay in Vietnam became very successful as the country opened up and became more business and capitalist friendly,” Diep said. “There was a lot of sadness that they had to leave.”

In Canada, he said his family struggled and while they didn’t have a lot, they had enough and they survived. He compliments his parents for finding a way to figure out landing in an entirely new country, not speaking the language and providing for their children.

Watching the situation unfold in Afghanistan, what he has struggled with most is anti-refugee sentiments—there is a sadness that there wasn’t more of an open and welcoming feeling for some.

“The lack of empathy for these people has been the biggest challenge for me,” Diep said. “That’s very challenging for me to see that because if it wasn’t for (another country taking us in) my family and myself wouldn’t be where we are today.”

His hope is that San Diego is a welcoming place for those people searching for a safer life.

The number of displaced people in the world is over 70 million, Bejko said.

Quite a few countries accept refugees and the United States has historically accepted the largest numbers of refugees except for the past four years when the presidential ceiling was lowered from 110,000 refugees in 2017 to 15,000 in fiscal year 2020. After taking office, President Joe Biden raised the refugee ceiling to 62,500 and has said that in 2022 the ceiling will be raised to 125,000.

In refugee resettlement, JFS’ work is built around integration and self-sufficiency, Bejko said.

Their support includes help with immigration and naturalization paperwork, cultural orientation classes, enrollment in English-as-a-second-language classes and short-term counseling, employment assistance, getting children enrolled in school and more. Their team also supports arriving refugees in San Diego by picking them up at the airport and putting together a secure, fully furnished place to live.

“JFS was founded on the tradition of ‘Welcoming the Stranger’ and aiding refugees and we look forward to helping individuals and families from around the world rebuild their lives in San Diego in safety and with dignity,” Bejko said.

There are many ways for people to help Afghan refugees and Bejko said JFS has seen an overwhelming response from the San Diego community in terms of donations and people wanting to volunteer.

“When I get past the sadness of the situation, I start thinking about how we, as a city, can support this whole new community of refugees,” said Nguyen. “I’m positive they will bring tremendous talent and energy to our country, just as the Vietnamese and prior waves of refugees have done.”

To learn more about how to help Afghanistan refugees visit
JFS San Diego at, Catholic Charities at, International Rescue Committee at, and Alliance for African Assistance