“I find that a lot of people who were not born in the United States seem to know U.S. history much better”: A Vietnamese refugee advocate talks about Colorado’s last big influx of new immigrants fleeing political violence

Refugees Commemorate Fall of Saigon at Holy Cross Lutheran Church 1978, Rocky Mountain News, courtesy of Denver Public Library.

More than 40,000 new immigrants have arrived in Colorado in the past two years. The influx marks the largest wave of new immigrants in Colorado history But, being a home for those who have fled their country is not new for Colorado. The second largest wave of immigrants into Colorado came after US troops pulled out of the Việt Nam War.

Between 1975 and 1990, about  25,000 Vietnamese refugees landed in Denver. Nga Vương-Sandoval, a Denver-based refugee and social justice advocate, was one of those refugees. Vương-Sandoval left Vietnam with her parents when she was three years old after the fall of Sài Gòn. Today she is a high-profile refugee advocate. Among her accomplishments, Vương-Sandoval has worked with First Lady Jill Biden in 2021 to more than double the amount of refugees allowed into the US. She’s a UN Refugee Delegate, the vice chair of the board for Lutheran Family Services where in 2018 she also became the first refugee ever elected to the board. At the end of April, the Colorado Judicial Department appointed Vương-Sandoval as the head of the Judicial Officer Outreach Program. She also is responsible for leading the effort to get the Lunar New Year recognized as an official Colorado holiday which state legislators declared in February.

KGNU’s Alexis Kenyon spoke with Vương-Sandoval who says she remembers bits and pieces of her experience fleeing Sài Gòn, and like the 2 million other Vietnamese refugees, her parents were forced to make an impossible choice.

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    04_28_23_NngVuongSandoval Alexis Kenyon

Interview Transcript:

Nga Vương-Sandoval: Had they selected for us to stay, we could either suffer starvation, suffer torture, and a real possibility of death if we stayed because we don’t subscribe to that regime. But my parents decided that we were going to try to get on one of the remaining ships. And so there was a massive exodus into the ports where the big ships were at.

These ships were not passenger ships. They were cargo ships. As many people as possible were stuffed onto these ships with no water and no food. Children, the elderly, and those who are health-compromised did not make it. They ended up dying on these ships, and their bodies had to be pushed over into the water because there was nowhere else to dispose of the bodies.

I mean, these were the kinds of realities that we were facing and none of us were prepared for anything that we could possibly have even imagined since the fall of Sài Gòn. Not even knowing where we would end up. It was, you know, it’s something that is not too far off because we’re still seeing recurrences of it again in multiple diasporas and groups of forcibly displaced persons in the United States, around the world, and of course here in Colorado.

Arrival in the United States

Alexis Kenyon: What was it like once you made it to the US? How were you treated back then by, you know, the community, but also by the government?

Nga Vương-Sandoval: So back when we arrived, there was no such thing as a refugee resettlement agency. It didn’t exist. And what that looked like back then was pretty piecemeal and pretty makeshift because there was not this number and this large volume of influx of refugees until we had arrived, until Vietnamese refugees had arrived.

But it’s interesting that you asked this question because in the United States, that particular war is called the Vietnam War, and in Việt Nam, it’s called the American War, which is really interesting to me in how things are framed and what sort of sentiments are associated with it.

The Vietnam War was not a popular war. There was a lot of opposition and protests. And there were millions of lives lost, whether Vietnamese or American, there were a lot of lives lost. And that precipitates a lot of negative feelings for folks who are here in thinking that we look like the people who the U.S. was fighting, not realizing we were also fighting with this regime.

Alexis Kenyon: Can you tell me more about why it was called the American War? How was that different from the way the U.S. framed the war? And how did that align with the way people in Việt Nam saw it?

Nga Vương-Sandoval: The way that I see it, it wasn’t just one single war that had occurred during the time. There were multiple wars. There was the North fighting the South. There was the communist regime fighting the non-communists. There were the Catholics fighting the Buddhists. There were the communists fighting the United States.

And so, that particular regime, which still exists in my homeland today, felt as though there was intervention where there shouldn’t have been from a foreign invader, yet another one, because of our long history of colonization from different countries. And so that’s why that perspective exists, is because it was seen as another invader, another intrusion, that was trying to dictate what it was that was happening in Vietnam at the time and still. And so it’s really interesting how wars are seen in different parts of the world, in particular countries that are directly impacted by it.

When I grew up and I finally read what happened about the Vietnam War in history books. I remember looking through the book, our book for class. I was flabbergasted to see that it was only a three-sentence paragraph that talked about something that happened for over 20 years, two decades. It was covered in three sentences, and it said that Vietnam had won the war. And again, that to me was inaccurate as well, because I don’t feel like we’ve won.After all the losses that came along with it, all of the fallout and all of the humanity that should have been integrated in this narrative.

It was covered in three sentences, and it said that Vietnam had won the war. And again, that to me was inaccurate as well, because I don’t feel like we’ve won.

And I always hear about that saying that goes, “It’s the victors who write history.” And I thought, how can that be true when the U.S. didn’t win this war, but yet still writing this history?

Cultural Colonization and Identity

Alexis Kenyon: Yeah, it’s so interesting the way that the quote “American”–although, you know, America is not just the United States–but how this Western, “American” lens has shaped so much of what we know about history and what’s been written about history.

It reminds me of something you brought up in your TED talk about the colonization of people’s culture and identity. You say it’s not just something that happens when one country invades another. It can be this idea of one story kind of drowning out another story or an identity drowning out another identity or not making space for another culture or identity. And I’m curious, I mean, you’ve lived in the U.S. since you were three, so that’s most of your life. How do you feel about being an American?

Nga Vương-Sandoval: It’s interesting because I have never forgotten my identity or my country of origin because it’s significant to me. And cultural colonization is a real issue of those of us who have completely lost everything and all they have left is their culture and their language, as we did. To me, I feel Vietnamese. I feel like I’m Vietnamese who is living in North America, in the United States.

And, Asian communites have brought such a diverse, eclectic, and rich history along with that too. Many of us come from countries that are thousands of years old, so it’s something we are very connected with and very proud of to share with our larger and broader community.

Historical Omissions and Misunderstandings

Nga Vương-Sandoval: And I feel like, again, history books have really omitted these portions or have really diluted what has happened, when in fact there were a lot of atrocities that happened with our Asian communities and some of them are still not spoken about or even addressed in the ways that are meaningful for these impacted communities.

It’s either brushed over, it’s not talked about at all, or it’s watered down to the fact that it wasn’t so bad. Here’s another really surprising detail that I wanted to share is that I find that a lot of people who were not born in the United States seem to know U.S. history much better than those who they speak to, which is a little ironic. But when I had talked to, I think it was a couple, with regard to the internment camps, they thought that those camps were just farms. And I said, “No, no, no, no, no, they were not farms.” And I explained in detail what had happened about being forced out of their homes, having to sell their businesses, curfews, and these prison camps basically, and they were very shocked.

And I thought, “How is it that they were not aware of this?”

Nga Vương-Sandoval: See, which is why I’m glad there’s a Ralph Carr building downtown that celebrates what former governor Ralph L. Carr did for Japanese Americans in saying, well, if the other states don’t want them, we want them here in Colorado. And that,

Alexis Kenyon: Wait, tell me that story? I don’t know that story.

Nga Vương-Sandoval: So, Ralph L. Carr was the governor of Colorado at the time, during World War II, and he was the only, if, the very few, if not the only governor that stood against what was happening with the internment. And he made a public statement in saying, well, we want you here, we want you here in Colorado.

And so that cost him a second term as governor for Colorado.

Alexis Kenyon: Wow, that feels like a very timely story to consider when we’re thinking about how to handle this wave of new immigrants into Colorado and specifically Denver. I mean, it’s amazing how history repeats itself.

Nga Vương-Sandoval: Yes. And, you know, doing the right thing isn’t always easy. A lot of times it’s not, it’s very difficult. But that’s why it needs to be done because it’s not about that singular act. It’s for what it represents for that broader community that is affected by laws and rules and things that are not humane to certain individuals.

And we’ve seen that historically that has happened just because it’s been a law in the past with segregation or with lynchings or with internment does not mean that it was the right thing to do at the time.



Picture of Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.

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