- For Vietnamese refugees, watching the chaos in Afghanistan this week brought back painful memories.
- Vietnamese-Americans told Insider what their experience was like fleeing their home country.
- They said it shows how crucial it is that the American government helps Afghans resettle in the US.
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Thang Dinh Nguyen and his family tried to escape Vietnam the day before Saigon fell.
Tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians clamored outside a US facility in April 1975, hoping to secure a helicopter seat to freedom. They scaled the compound's fencing, pushing back against US soldiers guarding the gates, begging for a spot aboard an airlift carrying US allies and Vietnamese civilians out of Vietnam.
Nguyen, the president of Boat People SOS, a nonprofit working to rescue Vietnamese asylum seekers, walked nearly seven miles with only cash in his pocket, ready to fly into the unknown and escape his falling home.
It was too dangerous to shove his way through the crowd, Nguyen said. He had two younger siblings in tow, and they could get trampled.
The scenes in Kabul this week, of Afghan civilians frantically flooding the tarmac in Kabul, dangling from airplane wings, and passing babies across gates to US soldiers in hopes of freedom, mirrored the most treacherous day of Nguyen's life.
Nguyen's mother and friends cried witnessing Afghan civilians seeking any route to escape.
"There is a sense of betrayal, a sense of loss. We feel empathy for the Afghan people," Nguyen said.
-PIVOT (@PIVOTorg) August 15, 2021
As the Taliban seized the Afghan capital and retook power in a lightning-speed offensive, thousands of civilians swarmed airport runways desperate for a path to escape. The Taliban is often hostile toward women and the free press, and has a poor track record in regards to human rights.
Vietnamese refugees said the Saigon and Kabul parallels go beyond photographic aesthetics. Recalling their own refugee experience, many are calling on the Biden administration and everyday US citizens to welcome Afghan refugees with open arms.
-Bee Nguyen 🐝 (@BeeForGeorgia) August 15, 2021
At seven months old, Kathy Tran's mother rocked her to sleep aboard a dilapidated boat sailing out of Vietnam in the dead of night.
"My mother said it was so dark, you couldn't tell where the ocean ended and the horizon began," Tran, a delegate of Virginia's House of Representatives, told Insider.
Tran and her mother rode a small fishing vessel to a Malaysian island. The boat snapped in half, and its remains washed ashore over several days. Refugees stepped up to claim the remnants; several fought over ownership of a sea-soaked shirt, including Tran's mother.
It had to be their top, Tran said, because her mother sewed her wedding band into the shirt's hem. The wedding band would be their means to receive food, shelter, and most importantly medicine. Seven-month old Tran became dehydrated and seasick aboard their journey; her mother thought she would have to bury her at sea.
"The desperate circumstances that would make parents leave everything they know and love, for the complete unknown ... I can only imagine what's going through their brains to make those decisions," Tran said.
'A heart-wrenching, tortuous, feeling' fleeing your home country
More than 600 Afghan civilians crammed into a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III leaving Kabul. The image of refugees, squished shoulder-to-shoulder as they fled their homeland, is reminiscent of Tran's story, she said.
In the right-hand corner, she noticed a mother cradling a baby nursing a bottle of milk.
"My mom wrote that it is a heart-wrenching, tortuous, feeling. And I think about it. We've been following their situation the past week," Tran said.
"It was exactly the same kind of rapid attack that had led us to run towards the ocean. However, we have the ocean as our last means of survival and the Afghans don't today. We shed tears for that."
Nga Vương-Sandoval, the Refugee Congress Delegate for Colorado, said war trauma continues long after the news cycle and people inevitably move on.
"The moment we stepped on those ships, we were in mourning," she said. "We were mourning the fact that the city and country we had known will never be the same again. It was a violent, abrupt overthrow of what we called home."
-History Colorado (@HistoryColorado) May 31, 2019
A US defense official told Defense One that the aircraft was not meant to take so many passengers. But some Afghans who had been cleared to evacuate slipped into the ramp while it was still open, and the crew decided to take off anyway.
Vương-Sandoval said the cargo ships where Vietnamese refugees stowed to escape the country were not meant to carry human beings, let alone transport them in open water.
As a delegate in the Refugee Congress, Vương-Sandoval advocates for the dignity and well-being of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
"I have an obligation to ensure that those who are in familiar, if not identical situations that I was in, are given another opportunity like I was. This is never something anyone chooses to be in," Vương-Sandoval said.
"I knew that even before we arrived in the United States, people were rooting for us," she added. "People were advocating for us, and were pleading to the president and Congress, and were pleading to anyone who would listen to them to please allow Vietnamese to arrive in the United States because they are human beings."
'Refugees are not just an issue overseas'
President Joe Biden committed on Friday to helping Afghan citizens who assisted the US military during the 20-year war flee the country if they wished.
"There were allies who were Afghan who fought alongside the United States, just like there were allies in Vietnam that fought alongside with their own lives in order to ensure the safety of the United States," Vương-Sandoval said.
The US accepted more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees within a year after the fall of Saigon in 1975. US State Department data shows that the nation has accepted fewer than 500 refugees from Afghanistan this year.
More than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been associated with US forces, according to the International Rescue Committee, but only 16,000 have been issued Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). Another 18,000 SIV applicants are in limbo.
Beyond a moral imperative, Vương-Sandoval said refugee assistance bears foreign policy implications.
"Refugees are not just an issue overseas," she said. "They have an impact throughout the world because the instability that you create when you intervene into a country has impact here in the United States as far as international relations with the country ... Their allies are going to be less cooperative working with the United States."
Evacuating and resettling Afghan refugees is the least the United States can do, Ca Dao "Cookie" Duong told Insider.
"At the end of the day, we have created the mess that they are now inheriting. We have to show our humanity in a time when these people need us at the most individual level," she said.
'We can finally bring that lesson forward'
Duong, who immigrated to the United States with her family a decade ago, saw her family history replay on national television as Kabul fell.
"Growing up, I have listened to a lot of the stories from my elders and my parents, especially my dad about the hardship that he encountered after 1975. Once again, the United States has abandoned its allies, people who have helped them throughout the course of their campaign," Duong said.
Afghan families in 2021 will endure the same hardships her relatives faced. But she is hopeful now. The lessons embedded within the pages of US history textbooks can lend a perspective to Afghan refugees.
"The United States is never going to be weaker for accepting and being compassionate with the people that need its help. It is always going to be stronger from it," Duong said.
"And I hope that … people have seen what happened in 1975. We can finally bring that lesson forward as this issue unfolds."