This is not a political post or statement, just a reminiscence of an earlier time – a time when our country brought in thousands of immigrants – refugees from a war in Vietnam fought valiantly by our soldiers. The year was 1975 and America opened wide her arms to the Vietnamese people who had fled their country as Saigon fell to the communists. A few of the more fortunate were airlifted out, but most ran or swam to boats with only the clothes on their backs and very little food. Many were transported to temporary shelter on Guam or the Philippines before being transferred to one of three military bases in the U.S.
My husband was stationed at Eglin A.F.B. when the refugees arrived. He helped to build the tent city and I volunteered to help process the new arrivals through immigration. The community came together with donations of
clothing, diapers, portable cribs, and everyday necessities and comforts we often take for granted. I remember the first stop for all incoming refugees was the medical tent. Many suffered eye infections as a result of a sandstorm on Guam and required treatment. Illnesses were diagnosed, and medicine and immunizations administered. The next stop was the admin tent where interviews and investigations were conducted, much like Ellis Island of years ago. Once vetted, each individual received their papers. Before anyone could leave the compound, they needed a sponsor – someone who would be responsible for them until they could be self-supportive.
Though I enjoyed my volunteer hours, the immigration process was regimented and there were many people to process. It left no time to get to know the many families and individuals on a personal level. It didn’t take long to figure out we would need to return during our “off” hours, bringing our year-old daughter with us to visit. Each tent housed multiple families and some singles in a random fashion. One particular tent became a favorite of ours and we made friends with most of the people who lived there. They were amused with our daughter’s blond hair and we enjoyed their little ones, too. Mostly we were astounded by their tales of escape and awed by the bravery and determination to flee their homeland and heritage. Leaving behind all that they knew.
As time went on, the immigrants found sponsors, or sponsors found them, and they left Tent City. One of our favorite families was three teenagers who made the journey without their parents. They were the
nephews and niece of President Thieu. When Saigon fell, their father, having held high rank in the regime and unable to leave, feared certain death and told them to flee. Tran Thi Man was twenty and his sister, Tran Thi Manh was eighteen. They had been students at the University of Saigon and spoke both Vietnamese and French, as well as a small amount of English. Their younger brother, Bao, was sixteen, and spoke only Vietnamese and French.
Their older, married sister had also escaped on a boat, but they didn’t know where she was. Man (pronounced Mun) told us their father had sent them with gold in their pockets, but they’d been robbed on the boat. He’d also brought his guitar, but that had been taken, too. I enjoyed taking them to the clothing tent and helping
Manh pick out some fashions. She was particularly fond of the flared pants. We talked about how life was in Vietnam growing up during the war years, what she liked to cook, and of her dreams for life in the states. They all shared hopes to one day reunite with family.
My husband received orders for Fairbanks, Alaska, and at the same time we discovered we were expecting our second child. We were hopeful and then devastated when we found a farmer had sponsored Manh, but would not take her brothers. We went to visit her on the farm and
found her living with many immigrants in a trailer – more people per square foot than the tent she’d just left. Most of the occupants would be doing farm labor. We knew we were leaving soon and I would be staying near family in Oregon while we waited for housing in Fairbanks. But, long story short, we applied for sponsorship of Man and Bao on the condition that we could also sponsor Manh. It was approved and on a sunny Florida day we loaded up our International Scout and drove with our baby girl, our dog, Toby, and our three teenagers through the southwest, up the California coast, and on to Oregon. It was one of the happiest decisions we ever made!
We could not have done it without my supportive and generous family. My sister found them a brand new subsidized apartment, and she and my mom furnished it with both hand-me-downs and a trip to the local Payless Drugstore for kitchen and bath essentials. My brother’s employer, Mario Pastega of the Corvallis Pepsi Cola Bottling Company, hired all three, and we enrolled them in English classes at Oregon State University. Catholic Charities provided money to purchase a car – a used Chevy. They were happy and settled before I left for Fairbanks, two months before our second baby was due. I felt sad to say goodbye, especially knowing they still wondered what happened to their parents and sister. But I hadn’t been gone long when they got word their sister and her husband were in Virginia, and Catholic Charities came through once again and paid for their move to reunite with family. We later learned their parents had escaped to France and eventually came to Virginia.
I often think about how immigration is the heritage of our country – my own ancestors coming here from England in the 1600’s on both my mother’s and my father’s side of the family. And while people still come to our shores to escape persecution, 9/11 in 2001 forever changed the process of admitting immigrants to our country. May we forever be the land of the free and home of the brave, even as we welcome the tired, the poor, and those who yearn to breathe free.
Rebecca DeMarino is the author of The Southold Chronicles, a historical romance series based on the lives of her true-life immigrant ancestors, the Hortons.