Opinion: Need for helping refugees is greater than ever

Dona Abbott

Our nation looks a lot different today than it did just three months ago. As we continue to battle the spread of COVID-19, we’re confronting injustice, inequality, racism and pent-up anger stemming from broken systems that have never been fixed.

Resettled refugees — new Americans from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who have fled violence and persecution — are among those deeply impacted by the virus, job loss and racism in our country. I think back to a time 45 years ago when our nation was also in tumult and how we treated refugees in response.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford spoke these words: “To ignore refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants.”

At the time, Ford implored Americans to welcome refugees from Vietnam. Yet, as we face the largest crisis of displaced people in world history — one that is worsening amidst a global pandemic — Ford’s call is timelier than ever.

A migrant walks in the Bira refugee camp in Bihac, northwestern Bosnia, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. The European Union's top migration official is warning Bosnian authorities of a likely humanitarian crisis this winter due to appalling conditions in overcrowded migrant camps in the country.

After the fall of Saigon, millions of refugees fled Vietnam. Ford responded with a sense of moral duty and compassion, seeking to resettle over 120,000 Vietnamese refugees. I had just started my career working as a foster care case manager with Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids when Ford — my former representative in Congress — announced the U.S. government would evacuate children from Saigon on a series of 30 flights. Known as Operation Babylift, this humanitarian effort brought approximately 3,000 refugee children to the U.S. in 1975.

The need was great, and Ford relied on communities big and small, urban and rural, to respond to the call to welcome refugees. I saw firsthand how the churches and communities responded. At Bethany, we placed 22 Vietnamese children with loving, long-term foster families over the next six months. That’s how I met Phillip Nguyen.

Nguyen, 14, an orphan living in a small coastal fishing village in Vietnam, became one of the first unaccompanied refugee minors to resettle in the United States, and I was his case manager. Today, Nguyen is a husband and father of three. But the escape from Vietnam remains a vivid memory for him.

“Every day you’d wake up and realize another family left overnight,” Nguyen told me. “Twenty fishing boats from our village would go out to sea, but only 10 would return. They saw a window, and they were gone.”  

As his village came under siege in Vietnam, Nguyen left behind everything he knew, piling into a 4-by-20-foot boat with 58 people, desperate to escape. After two years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong — and all the requisite interviews and medical screenings — he was finally cleared to resettle in the U.S. in 1983.

Bethany found Nguyen a foster family, and he found support from his community. Despite having a second-grade education when he enrolled in high school, Nguyen graduated at the top of his class. After college, he earned a master’s degree in computer science, and today he owns his own information techn and digital marketing business.

The support he received as a newly resettled refugee instilled a sense of duty to give back — to both his community and other children like him. Nguyen notes, “A lot of people out there don’t really understand the passion and contributions of the immigrant and refugee community.”

Nguyen is now a foster parent for refugee children who come to the U.S. alone, just like he did so many years ago. For the last three years, Nguyen and his wife have opened their home to six refugee youth. 

Ford’s commitment to welcoming refugees became the foundation for our modern-day refugee resettlement program. Through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, more than three million people fleeing for their lives have found safety in the U.S. He believed that not only was supporting refugees the right thing to do, but the refugees who found new homes in America would enrich this nation’s heritage. Even more, refugees and immigrants have been on the front lines of protecting our communities from the scourge of COVID-19.

At Bethany, we honor Ford’s legacy of supporting refugees. Sadly, the U.S. has stopped the resettlement of all refugees when the need is greater than ever.

I’ve been thinking about Nguyen a lot recently, as well as the thousands of other refugee children who’ve found homes over the course of the last four decades. Let’s not shut out compassion for neighbors in the U.S. and around the world. May empathy and understanding for those without safe places of home and refuge emerge from this mess.

Dona Abbott is the senior vice president of global, refugee and immigrant services for Bethany Christian Services.