Southeast Asian Refugee Stories 40 Years After the Fall of Saigon

South Vietnamese refugees on a US ship

South Vietnamese refugees walk across a U.S. Navy carrier during Operation Frequent Wind. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

We’re still thinking about the legacies of the wars in Southeast Asia this summer. This op-ed I co-wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune considers what that history means when we turn the spotlight on Southeast Asian refugees and their children.

It also includes a link to the Immigration History Research Center’s Immigrant Stories Digital Storytelling Project which helps immigrants and refugees create, preserve, and share their own immigrant stories.

Minnesotans’ refugee stories, 40 years after the Fall of Saigon

To fully know Minnesota history, we need to know the stories of families who were displaced in Southeast Asia and who now live here.
By Elizabeth Venditto and Erika Lee
April 29, 2015
Forty years ago today — on April 30, 1975 — Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnamese forces and ended the American war in Vietnam. For many Americans, the Fall of Saigon meant the end of a war that had taken the lives of many U.S. soldiers, divided the country and raised new questions about the U.S. role in the world. But the Fall of Saigon also had tremendous repercussions for millions of people in Southeast Asia whose lives had been torn apart. Former U.S. allies were persecuted, and many were forced to flee. U.S. refugee resettlement efforts initially brought some 130,000 Southeast Asians, most of them Vietnamese, to the United States. But those left behind continued to face political persecution, retribution, genocide and extreme poverty.
Between 1975 and 2010, 1.2 million people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia came to the United States. Southeast Asian refugees and their children found new homes in the United States and transformed our society. With 66,000 Hmong in the metro area, the Twin Cities is now known as the “Hmong Capital” of the world. Yet the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees are often missing from anniversary commemorations of the Vietnam War. What do we learn when we collect and preserve their stories?
There’s Lao Tan Le, who commanded an armored squadron for the South Vietnamese army until April 30, 1975. A month later, the communist government placed him and many other South Vietnamese army officers in re-education camps, where he remained until 1981. After years of surveillance following his release, he and his family resettled in Minnesota in 1994 through the U.S. government’s Orderly Departure Program.
Manichan Xiong, a Hmong woman now living in Minneapolis, lost her grandfather during the “Secret War” in Laos when communists discovered her family had helped a downed American pilot. She married a Hmong soldier, Col. Shong Leng Xiong, who also aided the Americans. She and her family lived in a Thai refugee camp from 1975 to 1993, when they came to the United States.
Kunrath Lam and her family lost many relatives to the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the family fled through the jungle to Thailand. They came to Minnesota in 1983. She and her family established Cheng Heng, the first Cambodian restaurant in St. Paul.
These stories and many others have been preserved and shared through Immigrant Stories, a project of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. The project helps first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees create brief videos with images, text, music and audio to tell their stories in their own words. The stories are preserved and made publicly available through the center’s archive, the largest archive of immigrant and refugee life in North America.
In recognition of the 40th anniversary of Southeast Asian refugee migrations to the United States, the center has created an online exhibit, “Immigrant Stories: 40 Years of Southeast Asian Stories.” The exhibit features 12 stories by Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao and Cambodian Minnesotans who migrated to the United States in the years after 1975. They provide unique, firsthand accounts of the wars in Southeast Asia, the difficulty and dangers of life as a refugee, the vast resettlement bureaucracy, and the new lives and communities that refugees and their families built in the United States.
In one such story, Saengmany Ratsabout reflects on how the history he learned in high school and college was missing “ … experiences of my family’s immigration story and stories of countless more refugees from Laos.” The Ratsabouts arrived in 1986, after spending years in a Thai refugee camp as “family # 129 337 1-6.” Vast amounts of paper document the family’s journey: resettlement forms, fingerprints, medical exams and the Northwest Airlines ticket that took them from Manila to Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Atlanta. Saengmany and his family now live in the Twin Cities.

Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, stories like Ratsabout’s need to be remembered and shared. They help us better understand the full impact of the war, not just for Americans at the time, but for the millions of refugees who have become Americans since.

Elizabeth Venditto is a public historian. Erika Lee is director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming book “The Making of Asian America: A History.”