AFGHANISTAN, THE TALIBAN, AND MY FRIEND TOAN

The Morning Call recalls a different world

As is my wont, I’m going to lead into today’s missive with a short biographical story.  One of the details I relay therein will, as you shall see, prove to be the key to this entire exercise – and, as such, the key to an impending public policy disaster.

As a kid growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, I went to St. Theresa’s school, where I was taught the fundamentals of life, faith, and grammar by the last of the ruler-toting Dominican Sisters.  St. T’s was a pretty eclectic school and parish.  It is centrally located in Lincoln and draws from some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the city, as well as some of the highest-income neighborhoods.

Middle School (or junior high as it was once called) brought an influx of new kids to St. Theresa’s.  And when I say “influx,” I mean about eight to ten kids, who came over from Sacred Heart parish, because Sacred Heart didn’t have enough kids or enough money to justify having a middle school/junior high.  Sacred Heart was in the poorest part of town.  (And yes, as the 68th biggest city in the country, bigger than Buffalo, Orlando, and Durham, to name just three, Lincoln has a poor part of town.)

If I recall correctly – and there’s no guarantee that I do – of the new Sacred Heart kids who showed up for middle school, four were boys.  And of that four, three were Vietnamese:  Tuan Le, who was probably the most “Americanized” of the three; Anh Tran, who was fast as lighting, was a pretty good little basketball player, and may or may not have been about 15 or 16; and Toan Bui, who quickly became one of my best friends.  Bui was a good kid and a good friend.  And he was, more than anything else, a wise-ass, which, as you may or may not have guessed, based on my friendship with the senior partner here at The Political Forum, tends to be my “type” when it comes to friends.  Sadly, his family moved to California during our sophomore year of high school, and tragically, a couple of years later, he drowned in a boating accident.  (R.I.P.)

In any case, we were all in the same grade, which made us all about the same age (Anh Tran, notwithstanding), which means that the three Vietnamese boys in my class were all born IN VIETNAM long before the war was over.  And that means that they were not merely immigrants, but refugees.  Two of the three were “boat people,” meaning that they were among the more than three-quarters of a million people who fled Vietnam by sea from 1975 to about 1979.  Bui’s story was a little different, and I’m not sure I ever got the complete version.  As best I can tell, though, he and his family, which was part Chinese as well as Vietnamese, fled overland through China, to Hong Kong, and then were resettled to good ol’ Lincoln, Nebraska from there.  In total, Lincoln – which had just under 150,000 residents in 1970 – became the new home to between 5500 and 6000 resettled Vietnamese refugees, or about 4% of its total pre-resettlement population.

All of which is to say that I grew up in a community that opened its arms and hearts to the refugees of a bungled American war.  And although I was far too young to have had anything to do with any of that I was fortunate enough to have made a very good childhood friend because of it.

Now, I’ll pause here to ask if you happened to guess which “detail” mentioned above is the one that I stipulated at the top of this piece will “prove the key to this entire exercise – and, as such, the key to an impending public policy disaster.”

I’ll just wait here, as you submit your guesses.

OK.  Congratulations to everyone who guessed correctly.  The detail that matters is this one: “St. Theresa’s.”  The three Vietnamese boys I met in middle school were Catholic.

Because of course they were.

Portuguese Franciscans arrived in Vietnam in the 16th Century, followed quickly by Spanish and then French Dominicans.  For most of the next three centuries, Catholicism’s fortunes in Vietnam waxed and waned through various “dynasties.”  In the 19th century, the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam grew so intense that the French used it as the justification to conquer and colonize the country (as well as Laos).  Over the course of the next 75 years, French missionaries were dedicated and diligent, so much so that by 1950, the Church estimated that between 10 and 11% of all Vietnamese were Roman Catholic. And then came Ho, Communism, and war:

Cut off from the Church in the south and the Church of Rome for almost 21 years (1954–75), persecuted by the Communist government, and devastated by the departure of more than half a million laity and clergy in the 1954 exodus, the Church in the north barely survived with only slightly more than half of the Catholic population remaining. Several dioceses in the north lost more than half of their members in the 1954 migration, and all but two lost more than half of the clergy (see Table 3: Decimation of the Northern Church, 1954). After 1954 the Communist government confiscated the Church's social and cultural institutions, and confined the clergy and religious to strictly religious activities. Bishops and priests were practically under house arrest. Sick people had to be carried to the priest's house for the sacrament of anointing; a pastor could not celebrate Mass outside of his parish without the special permission of local authorities. In the aftermath of the Communist victory over the south in 1975, there was another massive exodus. More than 1.5 million Vietnamese fled to foreign countries, especially to the United States.


An estimated 3 million people fled Vietnam from 1975-1980.  ONE HALF of those were Catholic, which makes sense, of course, since devout Catholics could be expected to be among the most anxious about the Communist regime.

I’ll pause again here for us all to think about that for a second.

Vietnam was one of the poorest and one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia – halfway around the world.  Superficially, Vietnamese refugees would be expected to be about as UNlike the residents of their new, adopted nation as any people in the world.  Their only experiences with Americans were in war.

Below the surface, however, there was religion.  At least half of them – and probably more – had one of the major cultural touchstones in common with their new fellow-countrymen.  They were Christians, just like the majority of Americans in the 1970s, and that made all the difference when it came to assimilation.

In less than a decade, child refugees – not the children OF refugees, but actual refugees themselves – were fully integrated into American society (even in non-cosmopolitan places like Nebraska), in large part because of the shared cultural tradition of faith.

Now, think about this for a second as well:

In the past twenty years, more than 3.5 million people have fled from Afghanistan.  That’s more than fled Vietnam.  The overwhelming majority of these refugees have been resettled in Pakistan and Iran.  Over these two decades, the United States has resettled about 20,000 Afghans on American soil.  That’s about 1000 per year.  This year, with the end of the war (and the ensuing debacle), those numbers are going to jump dramatically.  The United States alone will try to accommodate the resettlement of at least 50,000 Afghan refugees and as many as 150,000.  That’s anywhere from between 2.5 TIMES the total for the last 20 years COMBINED and 7.5 TIMES that total.  That’s nowhere near the number of Vietnamese refugees the nation took in, but it’s a big number nevertheless.  And almost none of them will have anything in common with their new neighbors, especially not religion.

Does that mean that the United States should not resettle Afghan refugees?  Of course not.  Does it mean that the United States can’t handle such a wave of refugees or that it will dramatically alter the nation in irreparable ways?  Again, no.  One should harbor no doubts about the American people’s capacity for generosity and hospitality.  Similarly, one should harbor no doubts about the American people’s willingness to share their love of country with new immigrants.

But that doesn’t mean that it will be easy.  It will take work – the kind of work the American government and its various affiliates are either not good at or choose not to be good at.

All of the pundits writing about how the United States has a responsibility to the Afghan refugees are right, but they’re being naïve at best.  All of the pundits writing about how this should be a walk in the park because “the United States has done it before” are flat wrong.  The United States has NEVER done anything like this before.  This is radically different from anything it has ever done, including the resettlement of the Vietnamese.

Again, this does NOT mean that resettling 150,000 Afghan refugees is too much for the American people and their government to handle.  It just means that it will take persistence and competence, two characteristics largely lacking in the American federal government these days.

Don’t expect any of the 150,000 to show up in the enrollment statistics at Sacred Heart or St. Theresa’s next fall.  If they did, it would be much, much easier.

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