Then and Now: The Experiences of Vietnamese Immigrants
with Thang Nguyen of Boat People SOS
It has been more than four decades since Vietnamese refugees arrived in the U.S. in large numbers, yet foundational challenges persist for this population.
Thang Nguyen, President and CEO of Boat People SOS, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share how some of the issues impacting the Vietnamese American community today stem from the waves of Vietnamese migration in the 1970s.
Apr 29, 2022
Tetiana A: After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. evacuated an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who settled in America. But the situation in Vietnam remained dire and this first wave of refugees was followed by more, with the population nearly doubling every decade between 1980 and 2000. Today, Vietnamese immigrants represent the fourth-largest Asian immigrant group in the U.S. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The U.S. is now home to approximately 1.8 million Vietnamese Americans, yet this population faces barriers to success, including limited English proficiency and lower levels of education. Joining me to talk about those challenges and how to solve them is Thang Nguyen, president and CEO of Boat People SOS. Thang, thank you so much for being here.
Thang N: Thank you.
Tetiana A:So, Thang, I want to start with the name of your organization. Can you talk to us about where that comes from?
Thang N: Yes. Boat People SOS, or BPSOS for short, was founded in 1980 by former refugees from Vietnam. At the time, there was an outflow of boat people in flimsy boats at sea and they were preyed on by pirates in the Thai Gulf. So we launched the new organization to sound an alarm to the entire international community to come to the rescue of the boat people at sea and that's where it came from.
Tetiana A: So, Thang, it's been more than four decades since Vietnamese started coming to the U.S. in significantly large numbers. That's a pretty long time, yet there are several foundational challenges in the community that still persist. Can you talk to us about what some of them are and what can be done to address them?
Thang N: We came from a refugee background. As with all the other refugees, we never intended to leave our home behind, to leave our country behind, and, therefore, we're totally unprepared. We didn't speak the language, the English language, when we came here. We didn't have relatives in the U.S., so we have to start all anew. There was not enough community support. We came from a communal society, where we rely on neighbors and all the people in the community. We didn't have that reconstructed in America and, therefore, we suffer a lot of trauma and we have language barrier and we couldn't turn to others around us for help, so that was a major challenge.
Tetiana : So I know one of the issues that you all work on now has to deal with workers' rights. Can you talk about some of the areas that are of greatest concern, when it comes to those in your community who are working here in the U.S.?
Thang N: Yes. I think that the vast majority of nail technicians in the U.S. came from the Vietnamese community. There's a lot of Vietnamese working in nail salons and they encounter hazardous substances every day, without knowing how to protect themselves. There's also the issue of exploitation. Many Vietnamese, because they don't speak the language, they don't know the law of the land, when they got exploited, they didn't know how to protect themselves, how to ask for help. There are many cases of human trafficking, labor trafficking in our community and we work on these issues. We educate the people in our community on how to protect themselves, how to get help, if they find themselves in that situation of being exploited.
Tetiana A: So there's another issue that faces the community, and many communities. We know that COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Can you talk a little bit about how that affected the Vietnamese American community? –
Thang N: In many different ways. First of all, because of lack of information, we don't have a program for Vietnamese. We have very few organizations, like BPSOS, to cater to the needs of Vietnamese Americans. There's very few Vietnamese language media outlets that carry information that is absolutely necessary for Vietnamese to prepare themselves to deal with COVID, for instance, the pandemic. So there's a lot of misinformation being passed around in the community. So we have to step up to the plate and develop our own media, means of mass media and small media and social media, to educate the people coming from Vietnam about how to get vaccinated. We need to dispel the many rumors -- wrong, false news, fake news, false rumors -- surrounding vaccination, for instance.
Tetiana A: And I'm wondering what keeps you hopeful that these barriers that we talked about in the Vietnamese American community can, in fact, be broken and the community, as a whole, can thrive? I mean, are there stories you see that sort of fill you with hope?
Thang N: Oh, I'm very hopeful because there's a new generation of Vietnamese Americans. They were born here in this country. They care very much about the community. They care very much about Vietnam and all the issues around the world because our background, we came from another part of the world to America. We appreciate the help that has been extended to us, so we are paying forward by helping others.
Tetiana A: So, Thang, I know people are going to want to know more. What's your website? Where should they go?
Thang N: The website is very easy to remember. It's bpsos.org. And you can go there and get more information about our different services, about our mission statement, and also about the needs of the community.
Tetiana A: Thang Nguyen, of Boat People SOS, thank you so much for your time.
Thang N: Thank you very much.
Tetiana A: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit... I'm Tetiana Anderson.