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 ended. Life in Iowa rescued the Nguyens from horrible conditions in Malaysian refugee camps. Forty years later, McCarthy prepared to interview Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad about the state’s policy toward modern day Burmese refugees.

One morning, Jeanne Buck Coburn’s family had the Nguyen family over for a big weekend breakfast. The whole family squeezed in around the dining room table, conversing softly as they admired the spread of food. Jeanne’s mom made eggs and other things she thought they might like. Although they tended to stick to eating Chinese food, they appreciated the effort Jeanne’s mother made to cook for them.

“As everyone was starting to finish up, they all started belching,” said Jeanne, laughing as she remembered the details of the story. “Very loudly. And we were sort of taken aback by that. Then they would say ‘Very good,’ and belch again.” The whole room was filled with the sound of burping, like bullfrogs echoing in appreciative song.“We kind of realized later that that is more of a cultural thing and that is how they compliment the chef—by belching. The more they belch, the better they enjoyed the food. It was kind of a funny, shocking thing at the time though.”

There were other cultural customs the Nguyens brought with them that were difficult for Jeanne’s family to understand. “I remember that there was a queen sized bed that we had gotten for the parents,” said Jeanne, when I asked her what specific differences she noticed in the way the family decorated and lived in the house. “And it was very hard to get this information to us—what they wanted was a pillow that went between them on the bed.” She paused as she thought back to the scene, almost as if she still couldn’t quite comprehend it. “I don’t know if it was because from a cultural side they just separate from each other in bed, or what. But getting them to describe what they wanted and why they wanted it was kind of difficult…but we did get that done.”

This broadcast is much longer than the first from CBS News, focusing on the growing number of Vietnamese refugees coming to the United States. The show begins with a report about President Carter and his administration’s request for $207 million from Congress to help resettle refugees from Vietnam in 1979. It then shifts to a special assignment report, in which three Vietnamese refugees are pictured riding bicycles along a dirt road, surrounded by sky and the bright summer green of Iowan cornfields. They are three men of the Nguyen family—the father and two of his sons, Wong and Phat, coming home from work in the bean fields. The family’s farmhouse is shown: white with a front and back porch and a long driveway lined with trees.

The camera then turns to another house, only a mile away—where Jeanne and her family live. Their yard is much larger than the last, lined with large oak trees and a picket fence, and a pale red roof tops the rectangular house. Eleanor Buck is interviewed in the yard, her eyes squinting slightly in the summer sun. “For somebody to leave their home and go out into the ocean and not know where they’re going or anything, they certainly have to be very desperate. And I can’t hardly imagine this, this isn’t very much but you figure you’ve got to do something,” she says.

Beverly Bacon, from the Iowa Valley Community College District, comes every Tuesday to help the Nguyen family learn English. She sits at the dining room table with them, just as the Buck family does most nights, holding up words and letters as she speaks them aloud. “The members of the Nguyen family are also learning to be self-supporting,” the report says. Several of the family members are shown at work in their respective jobs, welding, assisting at a greenhouse, and working at a printing press in town near Melbourne or within it. “It is too early to predict the general economic future of boat people in the United States, but of their predecessors—the 1975 group of Vietnamese refugees—33 percent are receiving some public assistance. Only 11 percent are totally on welfare,” the report explains.

In his interview with ABC, Wayne Buck expresses his belief that the Nguyens will soon be financially independent. He believes that after six months to a year, they will be “pretty self-sufficient.” The report focuses in on the faces of some of the Nguyens, sitting outside their farmhouse. “Although the Bucks receive $1,200 in federal funds dispersed by the state of Iowa to aid the Nguyen family, they have devoted much more than that in money, hard work, and in love to make this family of boat people feel at home in Iowa,” the report says.

When asked about her decision to help sponsor refugees, Jeanne Buck responds, “Well, I’m glad we did it,” a shy smile playing across her young face as her head of brown hair tilts to the side. “We can say that we saved eight lives.”

Jeanne Buck Coburn
Jeanne Buck Coburn

After my initial interview with Jeanne, I still felt as if I needed more information. As a journalist, I didn’t want to take too much creative liberty in telling her story, and although I had gotten a large amount of information and interesting anecdotes, I wanted to know more. I wanted more details, more memories from Jeanne’s past, more interactions between the Nguyen family and her own. I wanted her to tell me as much as she could remember about sponsoring this family. While certain gaps in information would still exist—particularly because I was relying on someone else’s ability to remember—I felt confident Jeanne could give me more.

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

Part 2: From Refugee Camp to Iowa, Plus Prepping For A Story 40 Years Later

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

My second interview with Jeanne was shorter than the first, but felt more comfortable and exciting. She was happy to tell me more, hopeful that this story might be published and the details of the Nguyens’ journey would make it out into the world. Although she told me a lot about their first years in Iowa, she also explained their own relationship with her family today. When I asked her some specifics she couldn’t remember or didn’t know, she suggested the possibility of putting me in contact with one of the Nguyen children, who she is friends with on Facebook. Secretly, I was excited; I had not originally expected to be able to talk with any of the Nguyen family members. But I tried to let her make that decision, explaining that I didn’t want to interview any of them if they didn’t feel comfortable talking with me about their past.

“I would say let me contact them first,” she said, her muffled voice echoing on speakerphone. “Especially now with the atmosphere in this country right now, I don’t know how much they are going to want to share with you. But they’ve all become citizens. They love being in America—they appreciate being in America. They have all become successful at what they’ve done.”

“When do you hear from the family? Do you just hear from them occasionally or at any specific times?” I asked, curious about the amount of contact they held with Jeanne and her own family.

“You know like I said, one of them I have on Facebook. So I see his posts and we’ve messaged a couple of times. The others I haven’t talked to lately, but it’s one of those things that if I picked up the phone and talked to them it would be comfortable, you know? Some of them—their English never really developed that well, some of them did. One of the brothers kind of took the lead when they got here—he was the oldest one there—the one that was older than him had to stay in Malaysia with his father because he had tested positive for TB. It was a few months later before he could come with his dad. So the second brother was the one who basically took the lead in communicating with us and leading the family and he’s still pretty much the leader with the family. He’s just got good leadership skills. He works for GE right now—he got a job with GE way back and he’s still there I believe.”

Next: Making contact with a Nguyen family member about coming to Iowa.

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