Iowa History
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Iowa History

When Southeast Asians Came to Iowa

In 1975, Southeast Asians who allied with America against communism faced torture, starvation and murder. The Tai Dam, an ethnic minority, fled persecution in their homelands of Vietnam and Laos. From Thailand they sent a desperate letter asking U.S. governors for asylum. Robert Ray responded by creating a refugee resettlement program that lasted 35 years, and the first Tai Dam arrived that winter.

A Hmong refugee named Shoua Her embroidered this “story quilt” that depicts her daily life in Laos, her exile to a refugee camp during the Vietnam War, and her arrival in the United States. She settled in Oskaloosa in 1976. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Most Tai Dam had never heard of Iowa and had false expectations. Based on the brochures they received from immigration officials, some Tai Dam mistakenly assumed they would become sheep farmers.

“When we came here, we did not see any sheep! Just cows and pigs,” recalled an elder named Siang Bachti.

Few refugees had farmed, but many settled in Iowa’s rural areas. Dinh VanLo, then a young man from the large capital of Laos, remembered thinking “Iowa was small potatoes” after relocating to Hull. Some refugees assumed America was a wealthy land without poverty; one group grew disappointed after sponsors resettled them in a poorer section of Des Moines.

The newcomers also learned about Iowa’s brutal winters. On his first day here, Khouang Luong learned how to push a car through the snowy street to get home. Another refugee tried shoveling snow off his rooftop in fear of a cave-in.

Along with Tai Dam, Cambodians, Hmong, Lao and Vietnamese sought better lives in Iowa, but not without controversy. Southeast Asian refugees reminded Iowans of the divisive Vietnam War. Opponents feared refugees would steal jobs and divert resources from needy Iowans.

Supporters like Eric Sharp followed the lead of Gov. Ray, who said, “If we don’t have the heart or the spirit to save human lives, then how can we be expected to help those whose lives are already assured?” Sharp, then 9, donated his Christmas money to Iowa SHARES, a Cambodian relief program that saved lives.

Sponsors like the Rev. Clement and Borghild Gisselquist helped the Quang family find their way in a new land. Lifelong bonds formed. When Un Quang died, Borghild Gisselquist even donated two funerary plots next to her late husband’s. Born 8,000 miles apart, the two men rest next to each other in a Story City cemetery.

Even with good sponsors, refugees faced a myriad of obstacles. Vinh Nguyen, a Vietnamese “boat person” who survived pirate attacks and many days at sea, worked in food service. His supervisor would shine a flashlight on dirty spots to signal where Nguyen must clean. Humiliated, Nguyen would leave work and freshen up in a DMACC bathroom before class. He became an English language educator in Des Moines, where he helps young refugees.

Southeast Asian schoolchildren had to overcome trauma and adjust to Iowa. Saran Chau lost a parent in Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields, but a cousin smuggled out a photograph of her late father, which she proudly displayed here in the Hawkeye State.

Racial slurs and bullying occurred, but so too did friendships and courtships. Elders and youths often disagreed while balancing cultural preservation and assimilation. But experiencing and appreciating newfound freedom in America also brought refugee children and their parents closer together. In Iowa, these youths and their parents believed in the American dream. Thanks to the courage of a governor, the kindness of many Iowans and the resilience of Southeast Asian Americans, many refugees created better lives for themselves.

Today, outsiders tend to stereotype Iowa as a “boring” land full of white farmers, but our state’s diverse history can be unlocked by studying the refugee experience. Iowa History Month lands in March, amid numerous Southeast Asian new year celebrations. Songs and dances originating in distant lands are performed by participants who hope their good fortune continues in Iowa.

— Matthew Walsh, professor at Des Moines Area Community College and author of “The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa.” This essay is one of a series the State Historical Society of Iowa is sharing during Iowa History Month, in March, and the commemoration of Iowa’s 175th Anniversary, throughout 2021.



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