Linda Trinh Vo, Professor at the University of California at Irvine

[00:00:00] I’m Linda Vo and I’m a professor at the University of California at Irvine and I’m in the Asian-American studies department a refugee is similar to someone who is an immigrant. However a refugee is someone who is fleeing their own country because of fear of persecution whether that be political persecution religious persecution or ethnic persecution. I was a child in 1975. 1975 was the end of the Vietnam War which other people have also referred to as Vietnam American war. And at that time. Are you referring to the United States or in Southeast Asia? So that was the end of the Vietnam War. On April 30th 1975. But in terms of the end of the Vietnam War it was the end of the war for Americans because this is the time that America. Had pulled out of the war and was no longer involved in the war.

[00:01:00] However what occurred afterwards was in political, economic and social instability in Vietnam but also in Laos and Cambodia. Well first of all there is internal fighting between political and military forces in those countries. And for example in Vietnam the communist forces overtook the southern part of Vietnam and wanted to replace the political power as a result. What they did is they imprisoned anyone who is a leader whether they were a military leader or a political leader in that country and replace a form of government. And so that socialist form of government was being instituted in this country. In the aftermath. And both Laos and Cambodia communist forces also were taking fighting for power. And this internal struggle led to a lot of death a lot of instability a lot of imprisonment and torture of individuals and also ethnic persecution of minority groups as well. One of the group–some of the groups that were persecuted were those in Laos and they were the Hmong and the Mien groups who had fought with alongside the CIA and the U.S. military against the communists. So when Communist forces took over in Laos they persecuted and basically practice ethno genocide of those ethnic groups. There are only loose base numbers but it’s very difficult because we don’t know exactly what happened what they did was basically practice policy extermination of these ethnic groups and these groups then became land refugees migrating internally in the country and then also escaping to the borders to Thailand.

[00:03:03] And we don’t know exactly the number of deaths that occurred or the number of killings that occurred or cases in which people starved on their migration path to Thailand the killing fields as most people know what happened in Cambodia was they basically imprisoned tortured and killed anyone who was of well educated anyone who was a leader in the country. And they basically depopulated urban areas and in the labor camps in the prisons that they sent everyone to. There was a division in terms of couples and people who were partners with one another or families. They separated children from their parents husbands from wives and forced everyone to labor for their food and also instituted political ideologies in these prison camps.

[00:04:04] So we have no idea of the numbers. And I think one point seven to three million people were killed a significant amount of the population. Basically you can say that anyone who is Cambodian American has suffered indirectly as a result of this and has had a close relative or members of their extended family who were killed and murdered during this time. Southeast Asian refugees come from three different countries. And so they’re coming from Vietnam but also from Laos and Cambodia as well. And within all of those countries there are ethnic groups or subgroups within these countries that are represented in the refugee population within the United States for example within the Vietnamese population you have ethnic Vietnamese and then we also have ethnic Chinese. And there was a significant number of boat people refugees who were actually ethnic Chinese Vietnamese in the Laotian population or the Lao population. There are numerous ethnic groups in their homeland and the significant groups that are here are the Hmong population as well as the Mien population. And then there is the ethnic Lao population. And within Cambodians There’s also a diversity of ethnic groups. I would say that there are a number of ethnic Chinese Cambodians as well here in this country. The majority of Southeast Asian refugees have come in 1975. But we need to recognize that there was a population of East Asian Americans in the United States pre ’75 and there were a number of international students here. Some of them were leaders military leaders that were here as well as a group of what we refer to as international brides or war brides.

[00:06:03] Those who had married Americans after 1975 the population is quite diverse in terms of how they came to the United States immediately at the end of the war in 1975. There were those who escaped and the ending days of the war. And so they were processed and we settled in some of them went to Guam some of them went to the Philippines and then they were processed in four military bases within the United States and the majority of those were Vietnamese. I would say about 120,000 were those immediate refugees and they were the ones who fear the most persecution from the new government taking over. So they were for the most part military and political leaders and their family members. So they were well educated and they had some contact with Westerners and some fluency in English. And I’m not saying all of them but a fair share of those groups who had access to getting onto the helicopters or the ships that transported them out of Vietnam. What you see in the late 1970s was what we referred to as boat people refugees. And this isn’t the end of the 1970s when a conflict arose between China and Vietnam as well. When individuals started to leave by boat. And these are individuals who had lived under the communist regime for a number of years and were fleeing for political reasons and they escaped to neighboring countries by boat. And so they escaped to Indonesia or to the Philippines to Hong Kong to Malaysia to seek asylum. And then from there they had to request permanent resettlement in another country or a host country.

[00:08:02] During that time there was also a group what we call land refugees who were escaping internally in their country and then leaving their country by land. Many of them going to neighboring country particularly Thailand and settling refugee camps there and then going through the process of resettlement and this time and. In this period where we’re referring to those who are from Cambodia and Laos as well as those from Vietnam. So some stayed for a few months. Others languished for years in the refugee camps.

[00:08:37] It depended on what refugee camps they were at. Depended on the period that they arrived at the refugee camps. And also if they could find a country that was willing to resettle them and it was also helpful if they had relatives who were settled in another country who could help sponsor them.

[00:08:55] There is about 15,000 Hmong who are being resettled in the United States from Thailand. And then there is a smaller number who have been refugees in the Philippines and they are Vietnamese refugees and they’re in the process of being resettled but they are basically the last group of refugees who will be processed and resettled in the United States.

[00:09:14] OK. Can I just go back and talk about two other were other groups. Yeah. There are other groups of refugees that have come as well. And we have also those girls who came under the Orderly Departure Program, the ODP program and this was instituted because of different nations deploring the conditions that refugees were leaving, the boat people refugees and also the United Nations intervened so that they negotiated with various countries to allow individuals to immigrate to the United States although once they arrived here they were treated as refugees.

[00:09:54] And another group have come significantly from Vietnam is called the humanitarian operation group. And these were former military leaders who had been imprisoned for at least seven years or more. And they and their family members were able to immigrate here once they were released or escaped from the re-education camps which were perceived as seen as prisons. OK. There is a long timeline for these it’s not like they all came in one group in one year so that is what this is. And we’re talking about the 1980s and into the 1990s and the Orderly Departure Program which is also part of that. So refugees were still coming in through the humanitarian operation program into the 1990s as well.

[00:10:44] Then another significant group that has arrived here as refugees are Amerasians and Amerasians are the children of Americans. And many of them were American military personnel and soldiers and Southeast Asian women as well. In the 1975 groups that came they were dispersed all across the country. The government was very interested in resettling them very quickly. There was lingering animosity after the war.

[00:11:20] People were unsure of who these refugees were why they were here. So the U.S. government wanted to process them as quickly as possible and also get them to assimilate as quickly as possible. So church groups, communities and also “Vol-ogs” or voluntary organizations help to resettle the refugees across the country.

[00:11:46] What eventually happened was many of these refugees felt very isolated in the towns and areas that they were resettled in. And in many of these areas they were unfamiliar with the climate. So they were sent to an area that was very cold and had harsh winter. This was not something they were used to. And they also wanted to be near their family and their friends and also near ethnic communities. And in this case would be other Asian ethnic communities as well. And they also wanted to be in places where they could find work. And I think that was really crucial. So they started to relocate to areas where they heard that there was work for them to do and they resettled particularly to states like Texas states like California. But you can find Vietnamese and Cambodian and Lao communities in other places such as Minnesota. And in Washington and Chicago. I say every single state (laughs) Oregon every single state. Right.

[00:12:49] But there are constant– what happened is secondary migration processes occurred so ethnic communities were created so that Portland is one of those areas where there’s a congregation of Southeast Asian Americans and Hmong refugees. Seattle is an area where refugees were settled. But we can there is locations. You know Washington D.C. all across.

[00:13:15] So in the process of secondary migration refugees and immigrants formed ethnic enclaves which for them is really a safe haven. It’s a place where they can interact with co-ethnics they can feel comfortable speaking their ethnic language they can read ethnic newspapers shop in grocery stores. So the food that they are familiar with as well. So they’re really a vital space to help ethnic immigrants and refugees resettle and adapt to the United States.

[00:13:49] But if you look at the location of these ethnic enclaves the majority of them are located in low income areas where many of the refugees were originally settled. And this is where they found they could find places to rent. And later on by and they could also open up their businesses in these areas where the rent the commercial real estate was much lower than other areas.

[00:14:13] Yeah. In creating ethnic enclaves, there is the argument that it prevents groups from further assimilating because they are just interacting with other ethnic groups. But on the other hand the other argument that’s made is that it’s. An ethnic enclaves allows groups to assimilate because it allows them to share information to one another. It can help them in terms of finding a job finding housing learning more about how to survive in the United States.

[00:14:51] What’s good I going to say most importantly it allows the first generation to really survive and to readjust. So if you can imagine what it’s like for you to come here when you’re 30 or 40 years old and have to restart your life all over again particularly after you experience the trauma of war and resettlement and going through the refugee camps and escape and then having to learn a whole new language new job skills going back to school often times at the same time you’re trying to raise a family. I think that’s extremely challenging.

[00:15:29] What…oftentimes the argument against these ethnic enclaves don’t recognize is that it allows the first generation to resettle. And the second generation then goes to US schools adapts and is able to adjust and a culture rate as a result of the trauma of the war and also escape in and oftentimes having to live in the conditions of the refugee camps for so many years both mental health issues and physical health issues are significant for this community. It’s not always treated. It’s not always been addressed in the community.

[00:16:15] However that within the community if you talk to individuals who have escaped as refugees they have incredible stories of trauma that they’ve gone through. And so I think that is what is so important about having co ethnics to share your experience who can understand where you’re coming from who they can talk to. As well. So there is I think a lifetime in a long term impact that this has had on the community but oftentimes it has on their families and family relations and with the children oftentimes as well.

[00:16:53] Well one significant contribution is definitely they’ve changed their American landscape with their ethnic communities whether their residential areas are commercial or cultural spaces that it is a contribution in terms of diversifying America but also the economic contribution they pay millions of dollars in taxes to the community and also have revitalized areas that were dwindling previously. And so. I think added significantly to the vitality of cities and towns where they’re located. Furthermore what you see is now we we have a first generation and then we have their children who are referred to as second generation and then we also have a small but it will be a growing third generation and you can see them going into all kinds of occupations making political contributions participating in the electoral process participating in the local economy becoming professionals as well. So there is on one side what you can see is an incredible success story. But this is not to diminish the issue of poverty that exist and persist within the community.

[00:18:21] And we go ahead. (Pause)

[00:18:25] Well for certain segments of the Vietnamese community and large percentage of the Cambodians and also Lao community it’s been very difficult. So it really depends on their background. There are many who came here with very little education and very little transferable skills in this country. So they’ve had to start all over again. And it’s oftentimes difficult for someone who’s 40 years old who speaks very little English and has limited education to find a job and the job they’re able to find are in low skill low paying occupations. And so there is government assistance and social services have been very useful. And it’s. And and able some of them to go back to school and we learn skills. But it’s very difficult when you only have six months to learn English and you’re expected to be proficient at that time and be able to gain a skill at the same time. Right. The services were initially very large for the 1975 group and then the groups that came afterwards the services diminished significantly for the groups as the United States experience what we refer to as compassion fatigue that we no longer wanted to deal with these refugees. The war was long over and we didn’t want to provide these kinds of services for the refugees and immigrants that were coming. And so it’s been incumbent on those who are already here the refugees and immigrants from their ethnic groups who are already here to provide those cell services and to help sponsor them as well.

[00:20:03] But many of the later waves that came were from rural areas they had fewer and fewer skills that were transferable less English language skills and also less contact with Westerners. I referred to a model minority issues a model minority myth. It really doesn’t identify a community because it’s difficult to say that everyone in the community is successful well educated individual so it really is a myth. I think we need to move much more into the statistics and the reality of the community that yes there are some who are doing quite well but there are so many others in the community that are having a very difficult time adjusting.