Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, it’s 1975, the end of the Vietnam War. The U.S. embassy in the capital city stands abandoned by Americans. All westerners had been dramatically evacuated in April of that year. The VietCong and North Vietnamese Army begin to insert their authority in the city.

The new political regime persecutes members loyal to the old republic state. Citizens are forced into indoctrination camps, a show of power and brutality disguised under the political excuse of “re-education.”

Duc Nguyen and his family inhabit the southern city of Saigon, and they find themselves living in these extreme circumstances. They need to escape. Luckily for them, Saigon sits less than one hundred miles from the beach.

Click below to hear the Duc’s escape from Vietnam.

Burma and China’s communist government held a strong treaty through the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time, Burma acted as a buffer between China and the West. For the Chinese born resident living in Burma, his poultry business did well during the late 1960’s. But Burma’s communist ally began to tighten its foreign policies, and Burma’s nationalistic climate shifted towards anti-Chinese.

Tension between the countries escalated to a violent riot on the business man’s street, forcing him and his family into hiding. Unspeakable crimes happened in their neighborhood that night to Chinese people. The family returned to their home to find possessions wrecked and stolen. The man decided that day, he would move his family to the United States.

Google Images

The Leamsing Refugee Camp on the rocky shore of Thailand, no more than some makeshift shelters for the fleeing Vietnamese. Huts hastily created from plastic tarps litter the camp. Food and water arrive from outside the camp. Locals from the fishing village traders visit the camp frequently, selling other wares to the displaced people.

Duc Nguyen and family at Leamsing Refugee Camp in Thailand, 1980.

The United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees steps into the camp from time to time to review cases. How long must Duc and his family stay there?

Duc speaks a little bit about the changes over time in the refugee procedures. If you are wondering about the exact criteria and U.S. system in place today for a refugee waiting in a camp, here is a diagram for you.

Used with the permission of the Refugee Forum of Orange County

They arrive at the Washington D.C. airport, with no sponsors to fund them, the Vietnamese family must live temporarily in the capital. Their living quarters are is something like an office/house in the refugee agency.

A few weeks later, a church in the state of Virginia sends a message. They are willing to sponsor Duc’s family, help them resettle and integrate into the United States culture. The government agency allows the refugees to decide whether or not they want to go to accept the church’s offer. They had the power to choose when and where they would resettle.

A semi-interactive map of Duc’s Journey

Duc’s parents desired a home, a job, and wanted their children to begin school again. In a whirl, the family hopped into a vehicle, which escorted them to a rural farming area in Virginia. Although safe from the Vietnamese communist regime, the family still had many obstacles to face in their new home in the United States.

Do you know that what the difference between a refugee and asylum seeker is?

Do you know what kind of government programs there are for helping newly arrived refugees?

Did you know that today a refugee’s direct government aide finishes in less than year?

Do you know where long term aide for refugees comes from?

Check out the video below if you would like these questions answered and explained for you.

The Chinese man has successfully escaped his home in Burma and arrived in the United States. He and his family have adjusted to their new lives. The man who once sold poultry, has become a grandfather. A particular daughter of his married a man by the last name of Roe. The couple has a daughter named Cathy.

While taking a refugee literature course at UCLA in 2013, Cathy Roe, granddaughter of our Burmese refugee, realizes the magnitude of her family’s past. During the end of the quarter, Meymuna Hussein-Cattan visits her classroom to give a short presentation about her non-profit organization called Tiyya. Meymuna shares that the Tiyya Foundation, located in Tustin, provides numerous services for resettling refugees in Orange County, California. Cathy feels a strong pull all through Meymuna’s speech. Before the end of the day, Meymuna offers her an internship during upcoming the summer months.

Cathy’s first assignment? Teach refugee children how to sing “It’s Small World,” for a performance at The World Refugee Celebration event in Anaheim.

In the clip below, Cathy speaks about her most touching experiences as an active volunteer in the refugee community of Orange County, California

I focus my work on finding home -Duc

2015, thirty-five years after his family’s escape from Vietnam, Duc is a voice for refugees through media. He directs documentaries about refugee experiences and leads social media campaigns. He is passionate about humanizing the experience of displaced people, in a tangible way, so that viewers can discuss and analyze issues, solutions, and effects of journeys like his.

You can view his documentary work below. To see more of his work visit at Right Here In My Pocket or RHIMP.

Recently graduated from UCLA, Cathy is excited to fully focus her energy on her volunteer work at Tiyya, which is geared towards community outreach. At the first meeting, she meets a UC Irvine student, named Stella Liu, creator of Break the Silence.

Cathy chooses to join Break the Silence. Working in her new organization and collaborating with Fresh Start UC Irvine, Cathy helps in creating a week long refugee awareness campaign at UC Irvine in Spring Quarter of 2015, leading the campaign as community outreach coordinator. Her confidence is greatly boosted. She finds a new purpose in the work. Now, she not only interacts with refugees, but also becomes a conduit for sharing their stories to the public.

During one of her assignments for Break the Silence, Cathy interviews documentary director Duc Nguyen. He offers her a position in his latest social media campaign. #ICareBecauseCampaign & MOAS.

Watch the video below to learn more about this program and watch Cathy and Duc work in tandem.

Directly affected, Nguyen, and indirectly affected, Roe, both portray the idea that displacement and resettlement experiences cause lifelong effects. Through volunteer work and raising awareness, these two choose to utilize their pasts to illuminate the present situation of those who are directly and indirectly affected by this topic. Other displaced people are not as lucky.

“It manifests differently in different people.” — Suhail Mulla

Access California is an established non profit organization in Anaheim, California. It provides all immigrants and refugees of Orange County with critical economic, social, and health services, such as English classes, employment workshops, and youth programs. There are two reasons why this organization comes into direct contact with all displaced people arriving in the county.

  1. Refugee Social Services Program: Access California is contracted with the County of Orange Social Service. This contract gives the non-profit organization, the ability to enroll a refugee or asylee in the eight month long Refugee Cash Assistance fund and to assign the entrant their ninety day-long government funded caseworker.
  2. Refugee Health Assessment Program: For both asylees and refugees who wish to stay in Orange County long term, it is government mandated that their holistic health is accurately assessed and problems are addressed. Access California is the only organization that provides this mandatory comprehensive health evaluation.

Curious to learn more about the present day Syrian Crisis?

  • sources for data found at bottom of piece

According to Access California’s Director of Mental Health, Suhail Mulla, all displaced people experience a varied form of post traumatic stress disorder.

But the PTSD is not apparent at first, for most of Mulla’s clients their first few years in the United States is only an extension of the survival mode they activate during the flight from their country. They are too occupied by immediate needs for an equipped living space, adequate food, and employment to dwell on the recent life-altering events. It is after these needs are met and the displaced person is seemingly “resettled,” that the mental health problems arise, as memories begin to surface and time for reflection is taken.

“It manifests differently in different people,” shares Mulla. For some it becomes paralyzing, they feel as if they are unable to seek higher education or pursue a more fulfilling job. Mulla likens this type of PTSD to a blocked wall.

For others, classical clinical problems form in their mental health, such as anxiety and depression. For displaced persons arriving from a violent environment, like a war zone, simple day to day activities and interactions can spark realistic flashbacks and sensations of their past home, leaving the person in a range of conditions from completely incapacitated or fearful of the grocery store. The celebratory twenty minute long, Disneyland Forever fireworks spectacular is reported to trigger memories and flashbacks of bombings and attacks for refugees and asylees in Orange County.

Overwhelming guilt can also plague the mental health. This is most common in refugees and asylees who left close family in their home countries due to excruciating circumstances.

Home is not where you live but where they understand you. -Christian Morgenstern

Material provisions are desperately needed by resettling people, valuable items include, diapers, furnishings for homes, weather appropriate clothing, and cooking utensils. Non-profit organizations always feel that they ought to provide more, but are limited to the amount of donations and funds they receive from both the community and government grants.

While a person can live in a place of physical safety, a true feeling of security derives from so much more. In addition to the responsibility of providing a displaced person with basic materialistic items, it is the responsibility of the community to create a safe space for their cultural differences. Day to day interactions can be the make or break of the success of the refugee’s resettlement experience.

Listen to some of Duc’s challenges adjusting to the Westernized culture of the small farm town in Virginia, facing racism and bullying.

Lifestyle differences are not the only trials that refugees in a new community face. In the United States, there are stigmas placed upon entrants. Even before the recent terrorist scare, people believed that refugees were not willing to assimilate or learn the English language, and would live off taxpayers dollars.

Some arguments to counter these misconceptions,

  1. In all of Cathy’s experience with refugees in Orange County, California, she has never encountered a displaced person, who has refused aide or English classes in an unfriendly manner. None have ever shown signs of unwillingness to adjust to their new environments. As stated above, most are just scrambling to find stable and basic provisions for their first few years.

2. After they begin work in the United States, refugees must reimburse the cost of their plane ticket to the International Organization for Migration.

3. They are not given long term subsidized housing.

4. They must apply for jobs. Hiring parties view their application no more than that of any other citizen of the United States.

5. Although some non-profit programs for refugees available longer term are funded through government or state-wide grants, all direct government services end within a year of arriving to the United States.

Cathy and Duc make it clear that they are putting their time and effort into breaking a vicious cycle of discrimination caused by these inaccurate assumptions. Their efforts through Break the Silence, Tiyya, and MOAS is to raise awareness in Orange County, California through honest and open conversations both online and in person.

Should more recently displaced people speak out about there experiences, even if it dangers the family they may have left behind? Does Duc’s escape from Vietnam represent a relevant refugee experience today? Does Cathy’s previous generation’s escape from Burma and her years of volunteer work allow her to speak in authority about the topic? Should the public take full responsibility to research the subject matter on their own?

One can sit and debate and point fingers like Capitol Hill does on the daily, but in reality, whether our country chooses to accept more or less registered refugees, we already have numerous asylees and refugees living among us from all over the world, not just Syria and Iraq.

For those already granted permission to live and reside in the safety of the United States, whether they be refugees, who are chosen by United Nations to come to the United States for safety, or asylees, who flee directly to the United States and apply for asylum through the court system in order to remain in the country, it takes effort from every party involved to create a truly safe environment for everyone.

Salma Maamalouk, an actress, who lived in Damascus. Fled as an asylee to the United States in 2013 after a deadly chemical attack hit in her wealthy neighborhood. She recently shared her narrative on November 15th at a Pacifica Institute presentation. She speaks of what she endured to come to the United States, and the obstacles she hurdled once she arrived.

Published with the permission of Pacifica Institute

Displaced people put the effort forth in adjusting to a new life and a new home. If the public is concerned about displaced people, they ought to put the effort forth in seeking out reliable facts, data, and stories before making rash comments or forming strong opinions. Volunteers and resettlement organizations represent mediation between the public and the refugees, putting their efforts into providing support and basic necessities, while raising awareness through transparent and easily accessible methods.

Because in the end, each one of us are the same. A person, a face, a soul, searching for a place to call home

Duc Nguyen as a refugee at Leamsing Refugee Camp in Thailand, 1980.

For a fifteen year old, Duc it began in a boat in Vietnam. For Cathy, a riot in Burma.

Duc put it perfectly.

Not all refugees come from Syria or Iraq. They come from everywhere.

If you haven’t used all of your data or stranded yourself in an isolated area with no wifi, then you should know that the recent, November 15th #ParisOnFire ISIS Attacks, have sparked a huge uproar in the United States. Certain states such as Georgia, Texas, and Illinois claim that Syrian refugees will not be welcomed under the cautionary argument that ISIS operatives could disguise themselves as a Syrian displaced person.

What the general U.S. public needs to understand is, displaced people, a broader term for the word “refugee,” existed before the Syrian Crisis. The glaring media spotlight on refugees today should not allow the public to turn these human lives and experiences into arbitrary numbers, empirical data, and worst of all, a threat to the general public.

Instead, the public ought to research both mathematical and humane aspects of the heated debate before making hasty decisions to seal U.S. borders.

Also, this piece does not really include a recent refugee experience. The media is flooded with them. Most recently displaced people are in no capacity to sit and reminisce about their better or worse days.

You may not have definite stance in the Syrian refugee debate after consuming all of this information. Hell, you shouldn’t. You should critically read at least ten more works commenting on displaced people, the Syrian crisis, and U.S. concerns before forming your own personal decision.

What you should be able to do after finishing this, is contribute to or begin a respectful well-informed conversation about the topic. Maybe as a bonus, you will also be equipped to ease some the tensions that may arise at the holiday dinner table among your diversely opinionated extended family. We all know that Uncle___ will probably begin a rant about the high profile debate.


Michaela Holland

Full Interview with Cathy

Full Interview with Duc