The early images of the fall of Kabul looked eerily similar to Saigon in 1975.
Saigon, the then-South Vietnamese capital, fell to the communist government of North Vietnam 46 years ago. The collapse came two years after its ally the United States withdrew troops, marking the end of the Vietnam War. Kabul, the Afghan capital, on the other hand, fell to the Taliban in the middle of U.S. troops withdrawing after 20 years of war sparked by 9/11.
Scholars and experts on the subject say the two situations differ politically. But Vietnamese-American journalist Ngoc Nguyen says comparisons on how the U.S. embraced refugees from Vietnam can provide insight into what's ahead as thousands of Afghan refugees make their way to this country.
In 1975, when Ngoc was baby, she and her family escaped Saigon as refugees and restarted their lives here in the U.S. Watching these events unfold in Afghanistan has stirred up emotions for her and her family.
“I know the turmoil and chaos of that time and I know how much that moment was so definitive in the course of their lives,” she says. “So it's bringing back a flood of memories, I'm sure, for the community.”
On April 30, 1975, Nguyen’s father, a South Vietnamese naval officer, brought her, her mother, and her grandmother onto a ship in a repair yard. Only two of the ship’s four engines worked, she says, but 2,000 “desperate” refugees piled in and filled the vessel to capacity.
When the ship got out to sea, U.S. naval ships helped the refugees get to an island off the coast of Vietnam. Then, Nguyen’s family sailed to Subic Bay in the Philippines and then to Guam, where they waited for their paperwork to come to the U.S. to process.
The U.S. military had four bases set up as camps in 1975 to welcome refugees in California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Nguyen’s family ended up in Arkansas, where refugees and servicemembers created a newspaper.
The newspaper includes information on where to get medical checks or vaccinations, American customs and common greetings, and bulletins from organizations such as the Red Cross. Opportunities to meet representatives from other countries looking for people to work in agriculture and livestock were advertised.
“This newspaper is really remarkable,” she says, “because it almost provides a time capsule.”
After several months in the camp, the Nguyens were matched with a sponsor family in Brethren, Michigan. The sponsor family helped the Nguyens with housing, transportation, pots, pans, food — and friendship.
“In a matter of six months, 50,000 refugees were matched with families or organizations all over the United States,” Nguyen says. “That just shows you the generosity of Americans.”
Former President Gerald Ford had to convince Congress and the nation that the U.S. could resettle the thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants efficiently, she says. Classifying the refugees as parolees made the process more efficient.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are criticizing President Biden for not acting quickly enough to get Afghans out. With this new batch of Afghan refugees, thousands will enter on U.S. special immigrant visas — a process that could take years.
Lawmakers need to do everything possible to get Afghans who helped the U.S. military to the country as soon as possible, Nguyen says, and make sure refugees wait for processing in a safe place.
People see very few pictures of refugees outside of the chaos, she says, whether it's melee at the Kabul airport or people hanging off helicopters in Saigon.
“But it's beyond those types of images,” she says. “There's really so much more because the time that the refugees will spend becoming Americans for the decades after that, it's a very long tale.”
With their own stories to tell and dreams to chase, refugees need a voice, she says. And Americans need to understand that arriving in a new country is a huge moment.
“To leave their homeland and to come to America, it is really life-changing,” she says. “And [Afghan refugees] are going to be part of the fabric of America at some point, just the way that the Vietnamese Americans have.”
Listeners who want to share stories about the 1975-era refugee camps in the U.S. can contact Nguyen at email@example.com.
This segment aired on August 20, 2021.