In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees convened a conference in Geneva on the growing refugee crisis in Iraq.
Approximately 4 million Iraqi citizens, of a population of 24 million, have fled their homes to avoid the violence of war. About half are in neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan, and half are dislocated within Iraq in fear of their lives.
Many Vietnamese Americans know firsthand what this refugee crisis means for those fleeing their homes and communities. They know firsthand what war in their homeland brings to them.
Thirty-two years ago, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Communists. Hundreds of thousands fled in the initial exodus and more than a million Vietnamese refugees fled afterward as boat people. An estimated half-million refugees perished at sea. They fled because of brutal retributions by the communists through "re-education" labor camps, forced eviction and property confiscation.
During the Vietnam War, millions more were displaced from their home villages to avoid being in the crossfire, particularly from artillery and air strikes, and to avoid being killed as suspected enemies of one side or the other. Children became orphans begging on city streets, women became widows selling their bodies, and elders became destitute without family support.
Millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides were killed. Physical, cultural and spiritual destruction compounded the suffering. Suspicion, fear, hatred and revenge permeated society.
Thirty-two years have passed since the end of the war and most physical wounds have healed. The cultural and spiritual trauma, however, has become generational and still maims the "dying lives."
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Today hundreds remain stateless in the Philippines, having spent up to 20 years of their lives languishing in refugee camps.
Vietnamese are still displaced inside their own country due to toxic materials left from war. Many areas are poisoned with dioxin or Agent Orange; children are born with severe birth defects and there is a high death rate from cancer. Unexploded bombs and mines are a daily threat for many.
Being a refugee outside one's homeland means being dispossessed, stripped bare, lost. Refugees are not recognized by any country and their names are replaced with numbers and statistics. Every day of their lives becomes dependant upon the charity and pity of others. Families are often broken up and dispersed during the fleeing. Their lives are suspended with uncertainties and terrors, and not knowing what is next.
Our nation's continuing occupation of Iraq causes further fighting and more displacement of Iraqis.
As called for by the UNHCR, the United States and Britain must take responsibility by providing sufficient funds to assist Iraq's neighboring countries in housing and sheltering refugees.
We must hold our government accountable to end the war immediately and to develop a comprehensive plan for resettlement. This plan must ensure the refugees' safety without any reprisals and provide sufficient material and psychological support to restart their lives.
Hieu Nguyen lives in Lake Forest Park. He escaped Vietnam by boat in March 1979 and came to the United States in August 1980 after 18 months in a refugee camp.
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