"Healing for America" Project
Story by Debra Matthews

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Welcome! Here's another mini-message in the "Healing for America" project. As people try to understand the issues of the refugee crisis, here is a look back at another refugee crisis, back in the 1970's.

Lesson From the Boat People
Copyright © 2018 by Debra K. Matthews. All rights reserved

Let me say up front that I absolutely understand the need for vetting, and how impossible it is to do it when you're talking about what some people call a backwards, medieval society with non-existent or poor record keeping. Bombed cities destroy what little records there are, and of course, with the current refugee problem, there is the added danger of ideals that severely clash with our values of equal rights and freedom, and of people who want to hurt us hiding amongst the refugees.

I have heard all the concerns about taking the refugees in today, and I understand them. I also understand the critical need for a good vetting process (non-existent, according to officials who are honest). I understand some other reasons that they are 'pushing high numbers in' for the wrong reasons, as well. This story isn't about the middle east crisis. Here I want to remember how we handled a very different refugee crisis back in the 1970's, and something that made it very different.

Back in the 1970's, masses of people were fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam. People grabbed their children and everything they could carry that could be used to start a new life, and fled the invading Communist armies. Anyone who thinks communism and other such forms of socialism are good should read about what happens when these kinds of armies invade a country, or when like in America recently, people who love communism and socialism try to take it over from within. Freedoms disappear. Everyone is pushed into low-paying jobs. Money shrinks until it is almost worthless. Old people and children with severe birth defects are denied medical care, because the socialist governments deem them not contributing to their society. There is no 'retirement' because once you are no longer working, socialist governments have no more use for you. The government, military and police become corrupt in societies where they have total power. It is not a good form of government.

Many of the fleeing Cambodians and Vietnamese sewed their money and gold into their clothes, trying to hide it from robbers. It didn't help. Pirates stopped the boats full of fleeing families and stripped their clothes from them. The people fleeing had nothing left except the slim hope of finding a new home, and maybe even one day going back to the home they remembered.

One of my co-workers at Boeing told me her story. Her family fled Vietnam when she was a young teenager. Nations didn't want them. They eventually ended up stranded on an island while waiting for various countries to 'vet' them, before deciding if they had skills or 'could be educated' to make a way in the new lands. If I remember right, they were there for a couple years, desperately awaiting help.

Although all refugees share one thing in common - their need for food and shelter - there was something amazing in the refugees who came to America back in the seventies. It's a lesson I have remembered and sometimes taught from when things seemed to be falling apart.

What was amazing about the Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees is how they handled coming to a new country.

In the Seattle area, churches and other organizations were contacted, asking if they could sponsor a family. The pastor of the church I had recently started attending decided after conferring with his board that they could take one family. To sponsor a family, you agreed to pay for their food, clothing and rent for six months. That gave them time to get working and get their feet under them, and then be able to support themselves by the end of the six months.

Some of you will want to take this the wrong way, but I hope you will think about the actual lesson I'm pointing out, and not try to read any other meaning into it. The end of this story was a lesson for me, growing up in poverty when my father became very ill.

The amazing thing about the stories of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, was that almost without exception, it wasn't six months, but within six weeks, the heads of their households and often other members of the families were working and paying their own way. Within a month and a half of coming to America as refugees, they were completely self-supporting.

They came to America with nothing. They didn't want to be on charity. They were a proud, industrious, hard-working people.

They came to America and built good lives alongside the rest of us. The lesson for me was that even when you've lost everything, if you're willing to find a way and work hard, there's always a way to make it honestly in this life.


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