Vietnam, or more precisely the fact of running away from it, has shaped my life. But we left when I was 3, so I have no recollection of it – and unlike most who try to get out, I left as a US citizen. So, to a large extent, this story is really my mother’s.
It was her that I thought of when I saw the heartbreaking images of the Afghan people on the news at the end of August, of her I think as we learn about the first days of this new Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban. Seeing the desperation of the Afghans, their desperation to leave their country, makes it more than ever clear how privileged I was to be an American citizen in Vietnam – and how lucky I am to have the life I now live in America.
I am worried about the future of Afghan women and girls. Recently, the director of the first all-female United Nations mission in Afghanistan proclaimed that the country was “on the verge of total collapse” warning that “the humanitarian imperative must come first”.
While there had been a push for more rights for women and girls in Afghanistan, comparatively. And now that push has not only been stopped but reversed – instead of talking about education and career opportunities, there is now a great concern for just their basic safety.
I was much more fortunate, as was my mother. She is Vietnamese, the oldest of nine children. My father was an American, a former military man who moved to Vietnam and worked for Voices in Vital America. They got married, my mother became a naturalized American, and about eight years after their marriage, I arrived.
And then, when I was 3 years old, the Saigon fall. American troops had withdrawn from the country in 1973; two years later, the Communist government of North Vietnam captured the capital of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
The United States didn’t expect Saigon to fall so quickly, and they rushed to evacuate thousands of American, South Vietnamese and other citizens by military helicopter the day before and on the day of Saigon’s capture. It was known as Operation Frequent Wind. We were one of the last American families to leave, so very privileged with our American passports.
I don’t remember the evacuation, nor Vietnam for that matter. But I remember seeing my mother’s resilience as she lived apart from her family for the next 15 years. And I know that although I was fortunate enough to have an American passport, many of my Vietnamese compatriots did not. They have suffered great hardships to survive and for future generations to have the chance to prosper.
This is what comes to mind when I look at Kabul. This is true for my Vietnamese-American compatriots, whether they fled their homes or were born in the United States. The common thread of our conversations is that we share a humanity for Afghan refugees because we know the devastation of a lost homeland and vanquished hopes.
I often think about how my particular path might have been changed if I had stayed in Vietnam. Here in America, I have spent 20 years working in political campaigns; I am now the CEO of the nonprofit Asia-Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies and the founder of a political, nonprofit consultancy called Arum Group.
What would my life have been like in Vietnam? The possibilities were highlighted to me when I returned right after the 2008 US election. We went to Saigon and they had all the high end stores like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. But I also saw so many children who looked like they were of school age – not at school but rather begging to try to survive. If I hadn’t been an American citizen, these might have been my children.
It is my privilege as a Vietnamese-American woman. But for my mother, the path has been divided. As the eldest of nine children, she was the protector and second mother in Vietnam, and when she arrived in the United States, her main goal was for all of her siblings and mother to come join us.
It took 15 years to get green cards for everyone at once, but she did. In 1991, 11 of my relatives came from Vietnam to live with us in Maryland. Fortunately, we lived in a large duplex and my mother arranged it so that they could occupy the two lower floors. She set up an extra kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms – and she bought so many linens that people in the store were like, “Are you opening a guest room or something?” “
We spent Thanksgiving together. We bought them winter coats. I enrolled my cousin in high school. We introduced them to American life and eventually they all bought homes within two blocks of us. We called it “the complex” and we were so happy to be reunited.
But it came after so long, and we missed it so much. My mother’s siblings got married and had children when they arrived. One of his brothers served as an officer in the South Vietnamese army and was later sent to a re-education camp. And my father had already passed away.
This saddened my mother, of course. But she and her family have always wanted to look forward, not back – it’s a common thread among people of her generation. She will be 80 next year and she’s been through a lot. I think the Vietnamese community continues to struggle with the trauma of the war years and the emotional toll that older generations sometimes refuse to acknowledge.
My mother fought for reunification, and she got it. I can only hope the same for all the Afghan women and girls who have come here. They are like all strong Vietnamese-American women who have risked physical harm, precarious conditions, and life in a foreign country to help support their families in this transition. These young girls will see the strength of their mothers, their sisters, their aunts and all those who came before them and who wanted to survive in order to succeed.
Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke is a nationally recognized civil rights leader and a member of USA Today’s Inaugural Leaders of Change. As President and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) and Founder and Director of Arum Group, LLC, she brings 25 years of political campaigning experience and specializes in collecting political / non-profit fundraising and political training.