April 30th marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1975, the war took the lives of over 58,000 Americans and at least 1,000,000 Vietnamese. Without Congressional approval, the U.S. also secretly dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years on the small country of Laos, and carpeted northern and eastern Cambodia with ordnance over the course of the war. In Cambodia, the end of the Vietnam War marked the beginning of the terror of the Khmer Rouge genocide, which killed approximately 1.7 million Cambodians – over 20% of the country’s population.
These crises created a mass exodus of refugees into Thailand and onto the open sea to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia. This was the largest humanitarian and refugee crises the world had seen and lasted over two decades. Over 1.3 million of these refugees were eventually resettled in the U.S. – the largest reception of refugees in U.S. history.
Today, 2.5 million Southeast Asian Americans (SEAAs) trace their heritage to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Those who survived the war and fled to the United States drew from a deep resilience to build new lives in this country. SEAAs blazed trails to start small businesses, lead community-based organizations, and serve in public office, while remaining rooted in the strength of their shared history and struggle.
But the wars, bombings, and genocide left deep wounds as well. Today, SEAA elders still suffer disproportionately from mental health issues related to trauma, and culturally and linguistically appropriate services remain inadequate. In a study conducted with Cambodian American older adults in Long Beach between 2003 and 2005, 90% reported having a family or friend murdered, 70% reported being exposed to violence after resettlement in the U.S., and 62% showed symptoms of PTSD.
On April 27th, SEARAC held our first “40 & Forward: Southeast Asian Americans Rooted & Rising” event to commemorate our community’s shared history and to celebrate our strength and resilience. The program included a Vietnamese American poet, Ngô Văn Diệm, who shared his memories of the day Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces, as American soldiers abandoned the city, in the form of poetry. You can listen to Diệm reading his haunting poem here, followed by his daughter Ivy reading an English translation. DEC National Managing Coordinator, Ben de Guzman, has been a longtime supporter of SEARAC and he was on hand to help celebrate our work on behalf of Southeast Asian American elders.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.