The Refugee Child: An American Story

Today is World Refugee Day. Research shows Americans don't want refugees.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

When the Fall of Saigon occurred on April 30, 1975, my father was a high-level government official; we received a call that Communist soldiers were en route to our home to execute my father. We left in a rush, dinner half-eaten on the table, without any of our possessions. We made our way to the Mekong Delta, where we luckily escaped on a small fishing boat as Communist soldiers fired from the shoreline. In the chaos, my 5-year-old sister was separated from us. Our fishing boat made its way to the open ocean, where we were miraculously rescued by a U.S. naval ship. I was 2 years old.

Source: Pixabay

We stayed in a refugee camp on a Malaysian island, where we anxiously waited for three months until the American Red Cross achieved the extraordinary feat of locating and reuniting my sister with us. After arriving in the U.S., a Southern Baptist church in Texas partnered with a nearby Catholic church and co-sponsored ("adopted") our family of eight.

Coming to America allowed us to escape a war-torn Communist Vietnam and to live in a free society. While there were times when some Americans showed their displeasure at my immigrant existence ("Go back to where you came from!"), growing up in America allowed me to eventually attain my doctorate and to now help children and families as a child psychologist and professor. It allowed my three sisters to obtain their own doctoral degrees in varied health professions, my eldest sister to become an accountant/director, and my brother to become the owner of a cafe. My father, with the support of my mother, dedicated the remainder of his professional career to working with American charities.

The United States of America began as a nation of immigrants. It began when a group of people left their country of origin and immigrated to the American continent. One of the world's iconic images is the Statue of Liberty, the Immigrant's Statue, which was built in 1886 and saw her significance grow in subsequent decades as countless ships filled with immigrants sailed past her on their way to the American shoreline. The statue's plaque tells the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The golden door is considered a beacon of promise beckoning immigrants to embrace a new land and all it offers. Has this welcoming symbol of the United States held true to its poetry?

Source: Pixabay

In 1845, nearly 2 million Irish refugees made their way across the Atlantic to the United States during the Great Hunger potato famine. Events such as this one comprise a long-standing history of welcoming refugees (e.g., Displaced Persons Act of 1946, Operation Safe Haven of 1956, Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, Refugee Act of 1980). But America also has a history of refusing or opposing refugees, starting with the Immigration Act of 1924 and continuing with the majority of Americans opposing refugee resettlement in the States at various times (i.e., 83% of Americans opposed allowing German Jews refugee haven in 1938, and 62% of Americans opposed the U.S. government’s plan to admit Vietnamese refugees in 1979). Ironically, many Americans who oppose refugee resettlement in the U.S. today were once immigrants or refugees themselves or have ancestors who were immigrants to the U.S. in prior generations.

A primary reason for many Americans' opposition to accepting refugees is related to the economy. Refugee resettlement is costly in real time; however, this fear-based concern has been shown to be unfounded in the longer term. History shows that welcoming refugees into the U.S. has made it a stronger country economically and culturally over time. My family’s story is not unique: Many Americans can trace back their history to when immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. These prior generations of immigrants from all corners of the world have helped the U.S. develop into an economic superpower.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, immigration, and the labor it brings, serves to increase the U.S.A.'s gross domestic product (GDP), and this is particularly relevant in the upcoming future as our Baby Boomer generation ages and eventually leaves the American workforce (a shrinking workforce leads to a stagnant economy, as is presently occurring in homogenous, aging Japan). A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of the startup companies valued at $1 billion or more had at least one immigrant founder. The New American Economy Research Fund found that refugees are 50% more likely to become entrepreneurs than native-born American citizens, and 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by refugees, immigrants, or their children. Further, economist Keith Maskus, of University of Colorado, found that for every 100 international students who earn science/engineering Ph.D.s in America, the U.S. gains 62 future patent applications.

Decades and decades of research by psychologists, scientists, and economists have overwhelmingly demonstrated that socially and culturally diverse groups are more innovative than homogenous groups. Studies show that groups with members from diverse backgrounds bring new information and are better at problem-solving and innovating than homogenous groups. Harvard Business Review in 2013 highlighted research that demonstrated companies with both inherent (traits one is born with) and acquired (traits gained from experience) diversity in their workforce were 45% likelier to report a growth in market share and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market. Thus, evidence suggests that diversity in the workforce contributes to innovation and improved ability for a team to solve complex problems.

Years ago, I asked my father if he wanted to return to live in Vietnam now that imminent danger had passed. I'll never forget his reply. Without any hesitation, he shook his head vigorously and said, "No, because America is my homeland. This is where we belong. This is our home. So now—we, our children, and our children’s children will give back to America, for taking us in when our lives were in danger."

Source: Bess-Hamiti/Pixabay

I'll never forget that America opened its doors to our family; it dreamed big for us. As proud American citizens, I believe we are fulfilling those dreams. As we raise our children in America, let us teach them the important, integral role of immigrants in our American history. History and statistics tell us that many of these children will eventually grow up and oppose refugee resettlement; however, as parents, we can create a shift in that thinking. We can make an effort to teach our children about America's rich immigrant history. We can teach them critical thinking—to look at the research and inform themselves, which helps to combat thinking based on unfounded fears. We can teach them that without immigrants, United States of America would not exist today.

Today is World Refugee Day, when we honor the strength and perseverance of people displaced around the world. We can best honor them by teaching our children to have empathy, compassion, and to look beyond themselves to the greater world.

To help:

International Rescue Committee:

Red Cross:

Refugees International:

UN High Commissioner for Refugees: A Rescue Agency:


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