Looking Back at Thirty Years of the US Refugee Resettlement Program

Earlier this year, I joined RefugePoint as the first Director of Development. Soon after, I took a trip to Kenya where I met with some of the refugees RefugePoint is helping. The trip made me think about my own journey as a refugee from Laos. Last week, the world celebrated World Refugee Day, a particularly significant date in the US because its marks the 30th anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act, which forever changed my life.

Not long after my father died, my mom fled with my one-year old sister and me (I was three) out of Vientiane, Laos. We made it to a United Nations refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. We spent half a year there before we were resettled to Orange County, California, with little more than the clothes on our backs. This was in 1981, the year after the US government created a formal refugee program to give people like us a chance at a new life.

Though we asked my mother often, she never talked about what had happened to us in Laos. My mom was a child during the war between the U.S. and the Viet Cong there, when US warplanes dropped tens of thousands of bombs — one of the reasons she still cannot sleep through the night. But she never expressed anger or bitterness towards what happened. She was simply grateful for the opportunity to rebuild our lives in safety.

Life wasn’t easy, particularly for my mom. She was a single parent in a strange land, and none of us spoke English. From Orange County we moved to northern California where, with the help of welfare and low-income housing, we could afford to live. Mom insisted that we excel in school even if she didn’t understand what we were studying. Education, she told us, was the key to success in America.

We later moved to Arizona where my mother worked as a waitress, spending ten hours a day on her feet six days a week. She was determined to get us off government assistance, stressing the importance of being self-sufficient. America, she said, had allowed us to come and rebuild our lives; we should make the most of what we’d been given. Soon after moving to Arizona we were off welfare. Seven years after we arrived to the U.S., we became citizens. It was one of the happiest days in my mother’s life.

I thought of my mother when I visited a Congolese refugee on my recent trip. When war broke out in her village, this refugee mother and her two young sons were separated from her husband. She was raped, but she and her sons managed to escape and flee to Kenya. As her children faced starvation, she resorted to survival sex – not uncommon among refugees living in urban slums.

Her living arrangement was appalling. Her concrete ‘home’ was a six-foot by seven-foot room a few feet from the outdoor toilets across from her doorway. Her room had no windows, no ventilation, no plumbing or electricity. She and her young boys slept on one old, thin, filthy twin mattress that took up half the floor space.

Despite these dire conditions, there was no anger in her voice – only hope. This was because she would soon be boarding a plane to resettle in America.

This year, as we mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Resettlement program, I look back on my own life and my trip to Kenya with gratitude and renewed appreciation for the lawmakers who created this program – like chief sponsor Senator Ted Kennedy and co-sponsor Senator (now Vice President) Joe Biden.

As a refugee who arrived in the U.S. at the program’s outset, I’ve lived my own American Dream. I earned a scholarship to Whittier College and secured an internship in the White House. I got my Masters Degree from the U.S. Naval War College, worked for two U.S. Senators, and was the Executive Director of Finance for the Democratic National Committee during the 2004 Presidential Campaign. It amazed me that I could be part of a campaign for one of the most important elected offices in the world. I can’t begin to thank the countless number of people who have helped me (and my family) along the way.

I only mention these milestones now because, several weeks after returning from Kenya, I’ve come to contemplate what my life could have been like in Laos or in the refugee camp in Thailand.

This is the root of my connection to RefugePoint’s work of rescuing and protecting the most at-risk refugees. These people have the same courage, determination and hope as my mother. Through the U.S. refugee resettlement program, their lives can be transformed by the same good fortune that brought us to America. The result, I’m sure, will be more proof that the American Dream is still alive and well.