The Pilau Bidong Refugee Camp presented several health problems to some 18,000 Vietnamese refugees who had gone through there by January 1979. Credit: Photo courtesy of Terengganu State University

The story so far

Jeanne Buck Coburn, a Mary Kay Cosmetics sales director living in Waterloo, Iowa, contacted former IowaWatch intern Clare McCarthy after reading McCarthy’s Aug. 5, 2015, story Response To Refugees In Iowa Has Changed In 40 Years because two Iowans featured in a photo with the story are her parents. Coburn told of how her parents took in the Nguyen family, refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s who moved to Iowa after the war in their country came to a close.

There were two main refugee camps in Malaysia from 1975 to 2005, both of which were small and meant to house around 4,500 people. The Pulau Bidong camp (where the Nguyen family resided for six months) was only 1 square kilometer in area and housed approximately 18,000 Vietnamese refugees by January of 1979. After the Nguyens made their journey to the United States, that number continued to grow, reaching a population of almost 40,000 by June. It was estimated to be the most heavily populated place in the world at that time.

Health care and disease control in the Malaysian refugee camps were limited. Many refugees suffered from lack of food and water, while others faced the shadow of malaria and other deadly diseases.

Those who had made the treacherous journey from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries were often sick upon arrival at the camps, where their health only got worse due to overcrowded conditions. The Nguyen children had traveled with their grandmother on the boat to Malaysia, but her aging body could not withstand the brutal conditions of the camp. The family never talked much about the camp experience, except to say how awful it was.

Open Arms in Iowa logo

When the United States first opened its arms to Southeast Asian refugees in 1975, Iowa Gov. Robert Ray—along with five other U.S. governors—visited China to learn more about the refugee crisis. In an interview about the trip, Gov. Ray describes how he arranged a visit to Thailand, where there were many Cambodian refugees who had been driven from their country. “Pol Pot was murdering thousands and thousands of people—killing them. It was genocide in its true sense and people were escaping,” Ray said. “And so after our trip to China we did make that visit to Thailand. And there were two camps that we went to. But one is indelible in my thinking because it’s hard to ever forget thousands of people lying in a mud field, skin and bones, no life, no activity, not enough food or almost not enough food to keep alive.

“I remember the person that was going to hand off this little girl to hold and she was probably four, five years old and her head just dropped and she was dead. Fifty to 100 people died in that mud camp a day and it was so awful. We left there just thinking how blessed we were and how much we should do or something we should do to help those poor people.”

About This Series

Clare McCarthy
Clare McCarthy

Open Arms in Iowa is a five-part long-form story told in narrative form by Clare McCarthy, a 2016 Cornell College (Mount Vernon, Iowa) graduate and former IowaWatch staff writer. McCarthy wrote this story for her senior project in narrative journalism when studying at Cornell. IowaWatch separated the complete story into five parts in order to publish it as a serial.

Part 1: How A News Report Brought Back Memories Of Iowa’s Vietnamese Refugee Rally

The entire story, without being separated for parts, may be read here.

Jeanne’s parents met opposition from multiple angles. One of their close friends was a Vietnam veteran, a man who had been in the throes of the war and was very angry and hateful towards people from Vietnam. Jeanne saw how this was difficult for her parents, since he and his family cut themselves off from any sort of communication with them after their sponsorship of the Nguyen family.

“There were people in the community who thought that it was really a dumb idea, and then there were people in the community who thought it was very good. I think for the most part, my family focused on the people who were willing to help,” Jeanne said. Iowa’s support for refugees was fairly widespread at the time, with former Gov. Ray’s involvement spurring compassion and open arms. In a 1975 interview with Iowa Pathways, an Internet Protocol Television station, Ray explained how proud he was of his state, highlighting the number of people who stepped forward and expressed their desire to help with the refugee crisis of the 1970s. During his time as governor, Ray built his reputation as a humanitarian leader of refugee resettlement in Iowa, establishing Iowa as a leader in welcoming and assisting refugees in need.

Although Jeanne’s parents supported Ray’s initiative, they focused more on what they could do for the Nguyen family than advocating for the resettlement effort and policy. “I mean, it was overwhelming just to handle what we were doing,” said Jeanne, a hint of exasperation in her voice. “I don’t know that they fought for the effort as much as just advocated within the community for what they were doing individually.”

After several years, one of the daughters in the Nguyen family wanted to get married. She had fallen in love with a man from Houston, Texas, the area where most of the family now lives because they found it a better fit for them. However, she wanted to get married at the Nugyen family’s house in Iowa, out in the yard. “And she wanted to know who could do the wedding,” said Jeanne.

“So my mother talked to a pastor at church and you know, there’s this whole issue of okay, they’re not Christian, they’re Buddhists, can you do this wedding anyway? I don’t know if he was supposed to or not, but he did. It was very interesting because he’s trying to bring in a traditional wedding ceremony, and they’re incorporating their Chinese and Vietnamese customs into it, and it was very interesting how that worked. But afterwards, we kind of all laughed about it. It was kind of funny at the time.”

Seeing this Iowa Historical Society photo in an Iowa newspaper that published a Clare McCarthy IowaWatch story prompted Jeanne Buck Coburn to contact McCarthy. The picture shows Vietnamese refugees gathered in Des Moines in 1975 with Coburn's parents, Eleanor and Wayne Buck of rural Melbourne, Iowa, who helped the refugees resettle in the state.
Seeing this Iowa Historical Society photo in an Iowa newspaper that published a Clare McCarthy IowaWatch story prompted Jeanne Buck Coburn to contact McCarthy. The picture shows Vietnamese refugees gathered in Des Moines in the 1970s with Coburn’s parents, Eleanor and Wayne Buck of rural Melbourne, Iowa, who helped the refugees resettle in the state. Credit: State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. Photo from the Iowa Refugee Service Center

In the late 1970s, attitudes toward Indochinese refugees were mixed. Americans held divided opinions about whether these refugees should be allowed to resettle in the United States. In a 1975 Harris poll, 37 percent were in favor, 49 percent opposed, and 14 percent weren’t sure. In 1979, a CBS News/New York Times poll reported that 62 percent of the American population opposed President Carter’s recent action to double the number of Indochinese refugees allowed into the United States. These percentages are similar to reactions today toward the Syrian refugee crisis, with 53 percent of Americans opposed to accepting refugees and about 11 percent more only accepting Christian refugees from Syria. The hostility surrounding refugee resettlement today is much similar to the reactions that existed in 1979, but individual and familial sponsors helped welcome a large number of refugees. Without Jeanne and her family’s help, the Nguyen family might never have made it out of refugee camps.

In the process of writing my article about Iowa’s current response to refugee resettlement, I interviewed Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. My entire internship felt as if it revolved around this day—if I could come up with a story from what I asked the governor, I might be able to have my first in-depth investigative article published by the end of the summer. While my weekly news quizzes and interviews with investigative journalists were teaching me a lot about researching and reporting, I wanted to feel like I had done something that made more of an impact, something that I could walk away with when I was done with the internship.

We went out to lunch beforehand in downtown Des Moines. Lyle Muller, the executive director of IowaWatch and my supervisor throughout the internship, acted as if it were a tradition to take his interns out to lunch on the day of the big interview with the governor. The other intern who was with me seemed calm and collected, as if we were simply going to another day of work at the office. She was more experienced with professional interviews since she had worked in journalism for a few years at her school, and a trip to the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines to interview the governor of Iowa didn’t seem to phase her. I, on the other hand, was silently trying to contain my nerves. I could feel the sticky humidity of mid-July heat settling on my shoulders as we stepped from the car, and a trail of light sweat trickled its way down my arm as we headed to the cool darkness of the restaurant.

I found myself picking at my food, trying desperately to act as if the Greek salad I had ordered held all the answers to my interview, and wishing we could stall time so that I might feel more confident. I wasn’t normally this nervous for interviews when I was asking the questions, but I had spent several weeks brainstorming the appropriate questions to ask and had already established an intense feeling of connection to what I was hoping to write. Before my experience with IowaWatch, I knew little about the number of refugees resettling in Iowa, but immediately became intrigued by one of investigative journalist Lee Rood’s articles in The Des Moines Register, which highlighted the increase in number of Burmese refugees entering the state. What really grabbed my attention were the problems these refugees were having with resettlement due to their limited English-speaking capabilities. Many were sinking into depression due to acculturation stress and cultural bereavement, Rood’s reports said. While there are certain programs in place to assist refugees with language learning and other services, the agencies often cannot keep up with the demand.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in a July 7, 2015, interview with IowaWatch summer interns, left to the right, Makayla Tendall and Clare McCarthy.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in a July 7, 2015, interview with IowaWatch summer interns, left to the right, Makayla Tendall and Clare McCarthy. Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

With only 15 minutes to interview Gov. Branstad, I made it my goal to ask him as much as I could about his role in the refugee resettlement process and whether he thought Iowa should be doing more to assist incoming refugees, hoping to draw parallels to Gov. Ray’s initiative in the 1970s. I was curious about his own involvement since he had recently vetoed state legislation that would have granted funding for a small start-up refugee aid program in Polk County, telling reporters the proposal was too specific to one part of Iowa. The interviews I had conducted with Iowans up to that point revealed certain skepticism about Branstad and the amount he was doing, particularly in comparison to Ray’s involvement 40 years previously. I wanted to see why this discrepancy existed, and what Gov. Branstad had to say about the influx of refugees coming into the state.

My anxiety stemmed more from the importance of the topic than my own ability to ask the questions—I wanted this story to get out there; I wanted the governor to give me answers I could work with and tie in with my other interviews. I wanted a good story.

Refugee assistance in Iowa is not the same as it was 40 years ago. State refugee services still exist but as part of the Iowa Department of Human Services and has been renamed the Bureau of Refugee Services. Federal grants that once supported assistance programs no longer exist. Refugees speaking different dialects even in the same languages are adding pressure to state agencies whose workers are trying to help the refugees. And Iowans helping refugees from other countries say the state – and its governor – are not doing enough.

“There is always room to improve,” said Amy Doyle, a lawyer who works with a refugee resettlement agency in Des Moines. “It’s really a matter of providing state funding for the organizations (that assist refugees).” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said more funding is needed, but from the federal government. “Unfortunately, these are complicated issues and there is not really an easy answer to it,” he said.

Another problem is giving refugees access to simple information and state services that exist, said Amy Doyle, with EMBARC, or the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Research Center.

“I mean they’re so grateful to have an apartment, but they don’t know how to use the oven, they don’t know how to use the stove, they don’t know how to get to the doctor’s office,” Doyle said. “These are people who, if we want them to thrive and succeed, we have to give them more than just a life preserver when they get here.”

Read Part 1: How A News Report Brought Back Memories Of Iowa’s Vietnamese Refugee Rally

Next: The Nguyens and Bucks become national news for day.

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