Refuge After War: Vietnamese and Afghan refugees take similar paths

Director Thanh Tan details the personal journey that inspired the first season of Crosscut Origins.

When Taliban fighters entered Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, taking over the Afghanistan capital in advance of a planned withdrawal of the American military, I had an unexpected and visceral reaction. I was enraged by the images I was seeing in the media, and I felt panicked for those Afghans desperate to flee the country. Almost immediately, I started working with friends to launch a mutual aid project we called Viets for Afghans

Where did these strong emotions come from? Shared experience. Direct and indirect. 

While I myself am not a refugee, I was raised by parents who fled Vietnam in the years following America’s withdrawal. They resettled in Washington state. Over the years, I’ve tried to piece together our family’s narrative. Even as a trained journalist, it’s been hard to get the full story. 

To fill in the blanks, I’ve relied on countless television documentaries, from a 1979 60 Minutes report on “boat people” by the late CBS correspondent Ed Bradley to the Oscar-nominated Last Days In Vietnam and filmmaker Duc Nguyen’s stunning Bolinao 52. In 2015, to help mark 40 years since the war’s end, I produced and reported a short film for The Seattle Times, An Extraordinary Offer, about Washington’s unique role in welcoming some of the first Vietnamese refugees evacuated to the U.S. in 1975.

These stories and precious first-person accounts can help us understand why America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan felt and looked eerily similar to the events of the closing days of the Vietnam War in April 1975. 

Since the fall of Kabul, we have been watching history repeat itself. An Afghan exodus is underway. To stay silent and watch this crisis play out – speaking especially as a person with shared lived experience who knows the consequences of inaction – is unacceptable. 

When I was asked to consider directing a docuseries about the resettlement of Afghan refugees in Washington, I thought of the power of film to help us understand this moment in time and the opportunity to learn from the Vietnamese refugee experience. By this time, I’d also formed friendships and allyship with members of the local Afghan community, and had the privilege to support a handful of Afghan evacuees through the private sponsorship efforts of Viets for Afghans. 

The result is “Refuge After War,” a five-part series that premieres this week and will continue to run weekly over the next month. 

Over the past year, we’ve interviewed more than two dozen people directly impacted by the refugee experience, primarily representing Vietnamese and Afghan voices. I am incredibly grateful to each and every interviewee who provided us with rich insights and wisdom, especially to the Afghan refugees you’ll meet who are dealing with immense pressures from all fronts yet had the courage to allow our cameras a glimpse into their lives. 

In this first episode, we look at the stunning parallels between the fall of Saigon 1975 and the fall of Kabul nearly five decades later. Later episodes will go deeper, exploring what happens to our foreign military allies when the U.S. decides to leave; how Vietnamese refugees are helping Afghan refugees adjust to their new lives; the culture shock that newly arrived female refugees are navigating on the path to self-sufficiency; and what is next for the Afghan diaspora.

Throughout these episodes I will seek to answer one underlying question: What can we learn from the past to help today’s refugees? 

Resources to help refugees: 


Listen to ‘Refuge After War’ director Thanh Tan discuss the origins of the series on the Crosscut Reports podcast:

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About the Authors & Contributors

Image of Than Tan

Thanh Tan

Thanh Tan is an award-winning multimedia storyteller and creator/host of Second Wave, a groundbreaking podcast from PRX and KUOW tracing the experiences of Vietnamese refugees after the war ended in 1975. Her reporting and writing has been featured across all platforms, including This American Life, The Seattle Times and The New York Times.