The United States’ military withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to massive social and political destabilization of the country, repeating a painful cycle all too familiar to many Southeast Asian Americans. As hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees fled the country to escape Taliban rule, the harrowing images of refugees crowding Kabul airport seeking evacuation triggered painful personal and familial memories of escaping Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Vietnam. Seeing echoes of their own trauma play out once more in Afghanistan has also inspired many to add their voices to the global call to resettle Afghan refugees, especially in light of the Biden administration’s recent decision to raise the number of refugees the US will accept per year.
Dr. Anh Thu Bui, board member and chair of the Leadership Development Committee for the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT), said many Southeast Asian Americans understand the current mental and emotional toll on Afghan refugees, who are losing their homelands and trying to preserve their families’ lives—all while they watch their world fall apart. Bui and her family narrowly escaped when she was nine years old, three years after the Fall of Saigon.
“We really don’t want anyone else to go through the same trauma,” Bui said. “We want to figure out how we can evacuate as many [Afghan] allies as possible so they don’t have to go through what we had to go through.”
A moral obligation
Having their own history of trauma and displacement has led to widespread support among Southeast Asian American communities for U.S. resettlement of Afghan refugees. Kham Moua, director of national policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), said that for many Southeast Asians, the war in Southeast Asia still largely informs their history and experiences. Seeing what’s happening in Afghanistan has brought it all back to the surface for these communities.
“It’s nearly impossible for us to look at these photos and to not compare it to what our people went through in the chaos of the U.S.s’ exit from Southeast Asia, and how that left our people feeling abandoned and having to fend for ourselves,” Moua said. “Those feelings are still very fresh for us, and that’s why we’ve seen support for resettlement efforts for Afghan refugees from all elements of Southeast Asian communities.”
Bui is one of many Southeast Asian Americans who see Afghan resettlement as a chance to pay forward the freedom and opportunity they themselves received as refugees to America. Bui underscores the symbolic position that America holds as a beacon of hope that has drawn many refugees and immigrants to its shores, and she hopes that Afghan refugees can—like many Southeast Asian Americans—be given a chance to build a new life in the U.S.
“As refugees and immigrants, we know America’s potential to be amazing and great, and we want to continue to grow and build that America that allows people to start over and build something new,” Bui said.
Others see resettlement as a moral obligation that extends from America’s history of military imperialism, including its military interventions in Southeast Asia as well as its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan. Writer Maz Do, whose father and paternal family narrowly escaped the fall of Saigon, said it’s important to remember that like Southeast Asian refugees before them, Afghan refugees are ultimately paying the price for American military intervention.
“America created a proxy war in Vietnam, and they’ve done the same thing in Afghanistan,” Do said.
“The U.S. has definitely had a long-standing idea of itself as policing the world ever since World War II, and we’ve seen that play out again and again in Southeast Asia, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and in Somalia,” Moua added. “Afghanistan is the latest consequence of the United States trying to assert its military might into the world by pushing its own concepts and values.”
Moua believes that there are steps that the federal government can take now to help facilitate the resettlement of Afghan refugees. He points out that raising refugee caps will do little to aid resettlement since the immigration system was gutted under the Trump administration, resulting in a resettlement process that is already overwhelmed under existing caps. Current asylum-seekers already face prohibitively long wait times as their applications are processed, and this problem would only be exacerbated if caps are increased without additional reform. Instead, SEARAC supports establishment of emergency humanitarian parole to provide immediate relief for Afghan refugees fleeing the country, as well as other proposed measures.
“At SEARAC, we’re trying to listen to what we’re hearing from Afghan-led efforts and those who have a long track record of refugee resettlement policy,” Moua said. “The lesson to be learned is how to resettle everyone and how to treat the humanitarian crisis beyond the immediate aftermath of our withdrawal. We know based on our own community’s history that hundreds of thousands of people will try to escape by land and by sea, and there will be a terrible human price unless we are able to put something in place to ease up on that as much as possible.”
To aid in these efforts, Moua urges supporters to take action by immediately calling their elected representatives.
“The more public pressure we can put, the more political pressure we can create around resettling as many people as possible,” he said. “We need to keep putting pressure on members of Congress which will give them the political mandate to consider taking action.”
While most supporters of resettlement have focused on evacuating Afghan military allies and their families, SEARAC has drawn parallels between Afghanistan and Southeast Asia to argue that America owes a broader responsibility to evacuate any Afghan citizen seeking asylum, regardless of whether they offered the American military assistance during occupation. Just as the U.S. military occupied Southeast Asia to wage both a physical and ideological war, Moua points out that the 20 years of war in Afghanistan resulted from the U.S. acting in its own interests rather than at the request of the Afghan people. In both cases, millions were forced to leave their country for fear of religious, ethnic, or political persecution, or to escape starvation and terrible living conditions from economic sanctions and war.
“As with Southeast Asia and Somalia, we may see another mass humanitarian crisis, especially if we only focus our attention on the short-term and on resettling only our allies,” Moua warned.
Relatable origin stories
Many Southeast Asian refugees struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder related to the trauma of their migration, and it’s been difficult for some to process how countless Afghans are being displaced and seeking refugee for similar reasons. In addition, the refugee crisis in Afghanistan comes while Southeast Asian American communities are also grappling with the upcoming 50th anniversary of Black April, which marks the capture of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces in 1975.
“Black April is a day of mourning, and a day to commiserate with each other over our great sense of loss—not just loss of country but also our loss of culture, loss of history, and loss of family members,” Bui said. “It’s a very deeply personal trauma that passes on from generation to generation … We’re still suffering as a community.”
Bui says that although the current crisis in Afghanistan have evoked vivid memories from her own refugee experience, she hasn’t felt able to speak openly about her feelings until her interview for this article. Older Southeast Asian American refugees may be even more reluctant to share their memories. This silence can compound feelings of trauma and isolation among refugees. Many younger Southeast Asian Americans only learn about their family’s refugee experiences through oral histories sporadically passed down from those willing to share their stories. Software engineer Justin Le only discovered his own family’s escape from Vietnam when he was in college.
“My mom still has nightmares about going back to Vietnam and not being able to leave,” Le said. “Growing up they didn’t share [these memories] with me much, so when I finally talked to them, what they shared with me helped me identify a lot of things about the culture of Vietnamese Americans in the United States that suddenly made sense to me. We share a lot in our origin stories, and this is what connects many of us.”
“There was a lot of family separation, confusion, terror, and uncertainty,” Do said. “Sometimes [my father] tells me he can’t remember what happened. We don’t talk freely about this and it’s difficult for us to open up to one another.”
However, discussion of the Afghan refugee crisis has opened a door for some Southeast Asian American young people to connect with their parents and grandparents about their own experiences. Community advocate Thu Nguyen says that she and her father are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and that they don’t typically talk about politics. However, in recent weeks, Nguyen’s father—whom Nguyen describes as a supporter of the Trump administration—has started conversations with her about the situation in Afghanistan, and has compared the plight of Afghan refugees with his own escape from Vietnam.
“His politics are framed by his lived experience,” Nguyen said. “From our recent conversations, I’ve realized his personal politics are much more nuanced than I had originally thought. I’ve come to understand him a lot better, and we are definitely a lot closer in discussing American colonialism. It’s been helpful to see and understand him more.”
Empathy for the people left behind
New Haven-area psychiatrist Dr. Sofia Noor specializes in helping patients with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, including many from underserved and marginalized communities. Some of her patients are new immigrants from Afghanistan, including those who survived violence by the Taliban and whose families are still trying to flee the country. Noor, who self-identifies as Pakistani, Chinese, and Vietnamese, said the stories they’ve shared reverberate with her own history. Both her maternal and paternal family were displaced by violence and political instability, and resulting intergenerational trauma was one of the reasons she decided to become a psychiatrist.
“A lot of immigrants feel like they are always preparing—like they can never get too comfortable—because at any time things can be taken away from you,” she said.
Noor believes this sense of shared and similar traumas distinguishes how Southeast Asian Americans understand the scope of the Afghanistan crisis compared to other Americans. Rather than seeing what’s happening in Afghanistan through the lens of U.S. soldiers, those who have been refugees themselves are more likely to understand the situation through the perspective of Afghans who are trying to get out.
“A lot of Americans can’t understand what it’s like to be a refugee because it hasn’t happened to them,” she said. “They don’t understand the terror of it. Our experiences are that of being refugees, and so it’s easier for us to sympathize or empathize with other people who are being left behind.”
Some Southeast Asian Americans are taking that empathy a step further, and are looking for ways to support Afghan refugees once they arrive in the U.S. For many, this hearkens back to the aid that Southeast Asian refugees received as refugees from local churches and nonprofit organizations when they first arrived.
Bui remembers how difficult it was for her to adjust to life in America after escaping Vietnam, and points out that everything that most Americans take for granted can be especially challenging to navigate as a new refugee who speaks little English—such as getting a drivers’ license, finding a place to live, and enrolling kids in school. These difficulties can be further compounded by the trauma of displacement and migration. Federal assistance to refugees is relatively meager and only lasts three months, whereas Bui said it took years for her to start to feel settled. For many Southeast Asian refugees, local churches as well as neighbors and friends were essential in helping refugees rebuild their lives, providing guidance, resources, and—sometimes, most importantly—a friendly ear.
“Community organizations really help you navigate life and that’s a role a lot of us can play,” Bui said. She hopes that getting involved in local efforts to support incoming Afghan refugees will create a positive impact that will help her further process the trauma that has resurfaced in recent weeks. “We remember and are grateful to lots of churches who helped us when we first arrived, so now we’re asking how we can replicate some of those same services and friendships for Afghan refugees coming here now.”
The rise of hostility to immigrants, particularly Muslims in the U.S., is also a concern. Noor’s practice includes helping new immigrants adjust to life in America and she fears for the additional stress and threats to their safety that her patients may face from racism.
“I’m not concerned about their work ethic or their ability to make it, but about how other people will treat them, and how this will impact the practicalities of setting up their lives here,” Noor said.
Assistance from community groups, churches, and others who are especially familiar with both refugee experiences and navigating racism in the U.S. will be all the more crucial to help Afghan refugees resettle in their new homes. Le remembers the value of the help he and his family received and he hopes that Afghan refugees can be broadly welcomed too and create their own vibrant communities here
Bui is hopeful that getting involved in community service organizations to help newly arrived Afghan refugees will be a step towards healing the racism, xenophobia, and hatred that has marked the last several years. She believes that it is a particularly powerful statement for Southeast Asian Americans—who, like many Asian Americans, have endured months of anti-Asian violence—to express support and welcome for Afghan refugees.
“We are coming out of a time when racism has been given so much more space to be outwardly and blatantly expressed,” Bui said. “Perhaps there is a chance now to rebuild and regrow, and heal some of the racial divisiveness of the last several years. Fires destroy, but they also allow for new growth. I want to look forward and to rebuild together.”