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. Coburn helped McCarthy contact Phat (Patrick) Nguyen, who wrote in a long email about his life in Iowa. One thing missing, though, was a girl he liked back home. They finally reunited in the United States in 2015. Next up for McCarthy was the interview with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and later story and photo that prompted Jeanne Buck Coburn to contact McCarthy.

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.
The Iowa Historical Society photo that prompted Jeanne Buck Coburn to contact McCarthy shows Vietnamese refugees in Des Moines with Coburn’s now diseased parents, Eleanor and Wayne Buck of rural Melbourne, Iowa.
The Iowa Historical Society photo that prompted Jeanne Buck Coburn to contact McCarthy shows Vietnamese refugees in Des Moines with Coburn’s now diseased parents, Eleanor and Wayne Buck of rural Melbourne, Iowa.

Gov. Terry Branstad seemed happy to meet fellow IowaWatch summer intern Makayla Tendall and me, welcoming us to the State Capitol building and asking us about our internships. The bristles of his graying mustache, which moved up and down as he talked, exaggerated his wide smile. Several formalities ensued—a brief introduction to the governor’s personal assistant, an opening of the complementary plastic water bottles that sat on coasters in front of us, a quiet question asking us if we were ready. Makayla went first, giving me another 15 minutes to read over my own questions and think about anything else I might want to add.

My interview went well, considering the short amount of time each of us had to ask him questions. Although his answers were lengthy and descriptive, Branstad addressed the questions vaguely. At times, he would talk about something related to the question but never fully answer it, repeating the phrase “there is no easy answer” several times throughout. “What they did in the 1970s was successful—and many of the immigrants of that era have successfully made the transition,” Branstad said, twisting the plastic cap of his pen between his fingers. “I think we need to analyze what the circumstances are today and what we can do and what other partners might be able to do.”

Branstad said Iowa has limited resources for helping the Burmese refugees. The federal government cuts mean Iowa needs to turn to partnerships with local churches and volunteer social service agencies, he explained. “I think one thing is that probably at the federal level, we need to look at the whole immigrant issue and how it is being dealt with and why the changes have been made and if there are changes that can be made in that program serving refugees so that we can better serve their needs.”

Branstad continued to push much of the responsibility onto the federal government, leaving me with a vague understanding of his opinion and no hard facts or answers. As soon as the clock showed our thirty minutes was up, the governor’s personal assistant interrupted, mentioning another meeting they needed to get to elsewhere. Gov. Branstad stood, his mustache smiling as the clammy palms of his hand reached out to shake our own, ending the interview with one last statement:

“Unfortunately these are complicated issues, and there is not really easy answers to it. A lot of people are very fearful of change. I am one that believes that change is inevitable. We need to try to find a way to adapt to it and adjust in a way that is going to meet the needs of our state in the future. But I am also keenly aware, because I grew up on a farm and the old saying is ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Well, unfortunately, a lot of things are broke and need to be fixed but we are resistant to fixing them.”

After a quick thank you, the governor was swept from the room, guided out the door and suddenly gone.

When Jeanne’s family went to pick up the refugees from Des Moines, they had to take two or three cars down to fit all of them. Jeanne and her younger sister rode in a car with their sister-in-law, who was driving, and they took the two daughters of the Nguyen family in their car. On the drive back to Melbourne, the two girls were extremely quiet, hardly speaking as they looked out at the new world around them. Although much older than Jeanne and her sister, they seemed suddenly younger, more naïve. After many months in a refugee camp, the bustling city atmosphere was somewhat overwhelming for them, entirely different from that to which they had grown accustomed. They kept looking back over their shoulders through the rear window, their eyes searching for the other cars that held the rest of their family.

About This Series

Open Arms in Iowa logo

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

Part 3:
Transition From Vietnamese Refugees To Iowans An Intercultural Adventure

Part 4: Life Goes On For Vietnamese Iowan But A Lost Love Remains Home

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

“It wasn’t until much later that they explained to us that they were afraid we were going to separate them and take them to different places,” Jeanne said in our second interview. “That’s why they kept watching the other cars behind them to make sure that they were all together. Which, you know, kind of highlighted the amount of fear that they had. And they felt they had to trust us, they had no choice. But it was frightening for them I think,” said Jeanne.

According to a Refugee Community Plan by the Des Moines Foundation, “Iowa’s refugee resettlement program has transformed greatly in the past four decades.” Increasing secondary migration, decreased federal funding, and higher need from refugees has led to more limited services and less refugee assistance, the report said.

Those pushing for Iowa to do more for Burmese coming into the state point to Iowa’s history of welcoming refugees.

Ray’s support and funding of refugee resettlement helped establish Iowa as a place that welcomes and assists refugees in need. While Branstad gave credit to Ray, he said, “You have to deal with the situation as it exists.”

When I asked Jeanne about how attitudes have shifted in comparison to the 1970s, she said much of it is still the same. “I do think that 9/11 changed people’s attitudes a lot, it made them more fearful. The world has gotten a lot smaller. Definitely, there was ethnocentrism and bigotry then, and that was probably my first experience of that.” She even explained how she’s had to “un-friend” some people on Facebook lately due to their personal opinions on the current refugee crisis.

“I find learning about people’s experiences and people’s cultures is exciting, I want to do that, I would love to learn more about that,” Jeanne said, her voice rising in pitch as she expressed her passion for the subject. “My daughter’s best friend—her parents are from Bosnia and his mother is wonderful and we’ve had several really good conversations. And she’s told me about some of her experiences in Bosnia and about moving here, and she said, you know, most people don’t ask these questions.”

Jeanne Buck Coburn
Jeanne Buck Coburn

“And you know I hear some comments from people, even in our church—just the other night—somebody said the youths were going to the Jewish synagogue, the temple. And the girl was afraid to go. And I just looked a little perplexed. And then somebody said, ‘You know, I would be afraid to go to an Islamic center.’ And I thought wow, I mean these are not fearful things to me. I am fascinated by them, I am not threatened by them, and I think all of that was keyed into me when I was thirteen with this experience that I had, with that being the reality of what had happened.”

When the Nguyen family first arrived in the United States, none of them knew how to drive a car because they had grown up in a city with mass transit and public transportation. So Jeanne’s father worked with the family to teach them how to drive, riding with each of them as they drove back and forth on the gravel road near the Nguyen’s house. At times, they would press down too hard on the gas pedal, causing dust to fly up in big billows behind them, Jeanne’s father shouting in a flustered panic. Jeanne’s cousin lived nearby, and each time they passed by his house, they would see him out in the barnyard and turn to wave as they drove. With every wave, their heads would turn and their hands would swerve in that direction, causing Jeanne’s father to grab the wheel in haste to correct them. They would laugh hysterically as the car bumped along the gravel road, their eyes shining as they looked to Jeanne’s father, huddled in the passenger seat as he clutched the handle on the door.


Since last summer, the governor of Iowa has changed his stance on welcoming refugees. An editor’s update that was added to my original article on Nov. 18, 2015, demonstrated Gov. Branstad’s current stand on the issue:

“We have welcomed refugees from around the world into Iowa. We must continue to have compassion for others but we must also maintain the safety of Iowans and the security of our state,” he said in a prepared statement. “Until a thorough and thoughtful review is conducted by the intelligence community and the safety of Iowans can be assured, the federal government should not resettle any Syrian refugees in Iowa.”

Gov. Branstad is not alone in believing the United States should close its doors to incoming Syrian refugees. Over half the nation’s governors oppose acceptance of Syrian refugees within their states, despite Syrian refugees being the largest number of refugees in the world.

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