“They took big guns and shot at my boat. Without any warning shots!” Van Dinh-Kuno remembers her family’s terrifying escape from Saigon as the city was falling. Her father, an artillery commander in the South Vietnamese army, would have been killed if he didn’t escape the approaching North Vietnamese.
Van Dinh-Kuno related her experiences as a refugee and immigrant, as the featured speaker at an Immigrant and Refugee Forum hosted by the Edmonds Diversity Commission Wednesday night. Dinh-Kuno is the long-time executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest — an organization based at Everett Community College that, among many other things, helps immigrants and refugees in five local counties learn English, find jobs and become citizens.
On April 29, 1975, Dinh-Kuno, her parents, grandmother, 10 siblings, and three cousins embarked on a harrowing 12-day voyage from Saigon Harbor. Almost 1000 people were packed onto a vessel that should hold 250 people. There were no supplies. There was no captain. Several former naval officers reluctantly assumed that job.
After five days at sea, the refugees tried to enter a port in Taiwan. Large guns fired at the boat. Taiwan wasn’t taking any more refugees. The boat was towed into international waters, where it drifted for two days while being pounded by a fierce storm. Van remembers, “We were running out of water. You can die from thirst. So we collected enough water during the storm to survive day number seven, number eight and number nine. We were so desperate.” Several refugees who died were lowered into the waters below.
Finally, the whirring of rotors brought hope. United States helicopters brought life-saving supplies — fuel, navigation charts and canned food, but no can openers. Two days later, when the ship anchored at Subic Bay in the Philippines, Dinh-Kuno’s family boarded a C-130 Hercules to begin their journey to a new home in the United States. Dinh-Kuno will always remember the bitter cold when she arrived in Brainerd, Minn. six months later — via steamy Guam and Fort Chaffee, Ark. — without winter clothing. A college friend of her father and a Lutheran church in Brainerd had sponsored her family.
Dinh-Kuno’s presentation was the first major public event for the Edmonds Diversity Commission, established by the Edmonds City Council in 2015 to “serve as a resource for city government and the community in promoting an environment that accepts, celebrates and appreciates diversity,” Commission Chair Mario Brown said in his opening remarks.
The commission’s goal is “inclusion for all of the city of Edmonds — its residents, and also the people that come to Edmonds to visit and to work,” Brown said.
Wednesday’s event in the Edmonds Library Plaza Room was billed as an opportunity for attendees to “hear first-hand about the immigrant experience as well as to share their experiences, concerns, challenges and triumphs.” Organizers noted that the event was timely, given the current focus on terrorism, refugees and immigration during this fall’s election season.
To address terrorism concerns associated with modern-day refugees fleeing Syria and war-torn Eastern European countries, Dinh-Kuno showed a video detailing the screening process refugees go through before entering the U.S. “Every refugee goes through intensive screening,” said Dinh-Kuno. “Particularly the people who come from the Middle East — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen. Everybody thinks they just pack their bags and show up at the front door of our country. It’s not that way at all — normally this process takes about two years.”
Dinh-Kuno also described the struggles and experiences of refugees and immigrants after they arrive in the U.S. A refugee who is single receives only $339 per month, for eight months. Families receive this benefit for longer, but basic needs can’t be met on $339 a month, so quickly finding a job is key. “If refugees and immigrants get the training they need, they get jobs. They become self-sufficient. They become independent. They become part of our community and contribute in our community,” she said
The evening ended with a question-and-answer session that highlighted refugees, immigrants and diversity in Edmonds. “Your city is very, very diverse,” Dinh-Kuno said, adding that 25.3 percent of Edmonds residents “either speak English as a second language, are a refugee or immigrant, or a person of color.”
When asked what refugees need most from the Edmonds community, Dinh-Kuno pointed to volunteers. Many refugees and immigrants dream of becoming U.S. citizens after spending the required five years in the country. Volunteers provide one-on-one history tutoring and mock interviews for these citizenship candidates.
She also stated emphatically that “we need people investing in the next generation,” explaining that “the Edmonds School District has a huge number of English as a Second Language students, and they speak 90 languages.” High school students from refugee families need help with reading and understanding homework questions. Mentors also help immigrant students and their parents navigate the education system—advising them on when to take SAT tests, get recommendation letters from counselors, and submit college applications.
An especially timely questions was, “How do you speak to people who are afraid of immigrants, who are afraid of all these people coming to this country?” Alluding to the fact that we are all immigrants or have immigrants in our past, Dinh-Kuno had this advice for who are worried: “Go home and look back two generations and see exactly where you came from.”
She added that in her personal experience, people who fear immigrants are the minority. “The majority of people are really kind, really welcoming, really caring, and really step up to help out.”
— Story and photos by Michael McAuliffe