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‘I felt like I was reliving a nightmare’: Southeast Asian refugees see echos of their own plight in the Afghan crisis

"Watching what has been unfolding in Afghanistan on TV, I felt like I was reliving a nightmare," said Nam Pham, director of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Salvation reached Anh Vu Sawyer through curls of barbed wire, pulling her inside the American Embassy’s compound in Saigon. It was April 30, 1975, and Sawyer, a young medical student, was among thousands of South Vietnamese civilians clambering up the embassy’s walls, desperate to escape as communist troops advanced on the fallen republic’s capital.

Sawyer prayed as the bedlam swelled around her, and miraculously, one of the Marines guarding the compound took her hand and tugged. Her parents and siblings followed. The barbed wire along the walls ripped their clothes clean off. Ribbons of fabric floated into the air, like tails of wayward kites, caught by the turbulence of a helicopter’s whirling blades.

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When she finally climbed into the belly of a helicopter and heard the hatch clang shut, Sawyer, scratched and bloody, knew she would survive.

“[The difference between] life and death is just a hair,” said Sawyer, executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition in Worcester, as she recalled her family’s frenzied evacuation from Vietnam. “We don’t know what happens if we stay. We don’t know what happens if we could not make it to the helicopter.”

Like many Southeast Asian refugees, displaced by war nearly five decades ago in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Sawyer has watched the crisis engulfing Afghanistan with empathy and anguish. The rapid withdrawal of American forces after 20 years of conflict, the Taliban’s swift conquest of the capital in Kabul, and the ensuing chaos — as Afghans scrambled to flee their home country — are harrowing reminders of the past. From their own experience, many Southeast Asian refugees know the trauma of war will linger long after the Afghans reach their safe haven.

“Watching what has been unfolding in Afghanistan on TV, I felt like I was reliving a nightmare,” said Nam Pham, director of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, who was 19 when Saigon fell.It’s not easy to be a refugee. You have to leave everything you know — everything that you love, everything that you may wish for, dream of — behind.”

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Shortly after the fall of Saigon, Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, opening the nation’s doors to 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees before the end of 1975, with help from churches and charities that volunteered to sponsor them. The Refugee Act of 1980 standardized the system for admitting and resettling refugees. Eventually, 1.2 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, and Lao refugees would scatter to communities across the country, representing the largest resettlement effort in US history.

As the nation prepares to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans in the coming weeks, many Southeast Asian Americans are urging officials to admit as many refugees as possible, and ensure they receive more support than they did when they first landed on US soil. Others are eager to give back: Sawyer’s organization has already recruited 50 Vietnamese families in the Worcester area willing to house Afghan evacuees upon their arrival in Massachusetts.

“My biggest fear is that we stop [helping] after they come,” said Lisette Le, executive director of the nonprofit VietAID in Dorchester, “and that whatever stakeholders — the federal government, state government, municipal government, funders, other institutions — stop providing support after a period of time because it’s assumed you should be able to do it on your own now and that the crisis is over.”

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Le’s family resettled in Akron, Ohio, in 1990, as part of the country’s Humanitarian Operation program for former prisoners of Vietnam’s reeducation camps. Growing up, hers and other Vietnamese families mostly relied on help from a local Catholic church. Otherwise, Le said, there were no social services to help her parents adjust to life in the Midwest, or learn English. She often had to act as translator for her parents at doctor visits and other appointments.

“I wish there was a recreation site for my parents to go to. I wish there was a community center. I wish that we had many of the things growing up that it’s taken us in Boston over 30 years to begin to get,” she said. “We came here. We are very grateful to have this ability to be alive, ultimately. But the resources for a lot of folks, they haven’t had.”

Decades later, Southeast Asian Americans still struggle disproportionately with high rates of poverty and limited English proficiency, Le noted, as well as access to affordable housing. According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a national civil rights organization, nearly half of Southeast Asian Americans are low-income and are less likely than whites and other Asian Americans to graduate from high school or complete college.

“It’s been almost 50 years,” Le said, “and [the crisis] is not over for a lot of the folks who came as refugees.”

Pham, 65, is most worried about the mental health challenges newly arrived Afghans may face. He grew up in the shadow of war, chasing his family from one village to another across Vietnam. When they heard on the radio that North Vietnamese forces were nearing their home outside Saigon, his family had to choose between making one final stand or escaping. On the last day of the war, they boarded a crowded barge in the Saigon River that was intercepted a couple of days later by the US Navy. They were taken to a naval base in the Philippines and flown to Guam for processing. Their first stop on the US mainland was Fort Smith in Arkansas, where they waited for an American sponsor.

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Pham understands the Afghans’ plight, their sorrow, and perhaps, their shame and anger, too. He felt the American government had abandoned and betrayed South Vietnam’s military. (A cousin serving in the South Vietnam Armed Forces told Pham he was allotted just 20 bullets and two grenades for every mission.) And Pham was consumed with guilt for having lived while others perished.

“The most difficult part is the feeling that you failed to protect your country and you left your loved ones behind,” he said. “That may haunt them for a long, long time.”

Pham’s family eventually resettled in Minnetonka, Minn., where a local church had agreed to sponsor them. Pham got a job at a car wash, learned English, and went to college and graduate school. Still, his past was never far behind. For years, Pham was plagued by nightmares of being pursued by communist troops.

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Surviving is much easier than living,” he said. “In the first few years, their lives will be centered around surviving, but after, I have no doubt that they will be successful and have a stable life.”

The trauma of war and displacement has left Phitsamay S. Uy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, with lasting psychological scars. Uy was born in Laos in 1973, at the end of the CIA’s secret war against the Pathet Lao, a communist group and ally of North Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, US warplanes dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos in 580,000 bombing raids in an attempt to disrupt traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the infamous supply route through Laos and Cambodia that enabled North Vietnam’s assault on the South.

After the US exit from Southeast Asia, Uy’s family fled to Thailand, where they spent two years in a refugee camp before they were resettled in Manchester, Conn., when Uy was 6.She was diagnosed with PTSD a few years ago after being triggered by images in the news of migrant children in cells at the US-Mexico border.

The tumultuous evacuation of Afghans has been painful for Uy to witness.

“When I get triggered, I go back to being that little 4-year-old,” she said, choking back tears. “I have to tell her, ‘You’re safe now. You’re OK.’ ”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.