Refuge After War: Lasting lessons from Vietnam

Crosscut Origins director Thanh Tan offers her final thoughts on the series as the world grapples with what's next for the Afghan diaspora.

I am not a refugee, yet I sometimes feel that I still carry the scars of the past. My family was among the millions who fled Vietnam by boat in the years following the end of the Vietnam War. 

Over time, my training as a journalist, natural curiosity about identity and what it means to be Vietnamese American have all led me down rabbit holes in search of answers. I’ve extracted memories from my loved ones, read and watched countless accounts of the subject of Vietnam, traveled to the motherland multiple times and even attempted to retrace my family’s escape route. I did all this thinking that the truth would set me free. It hasn’t. The more I learn, the more I find myself contending with multiple narratives and intense emotions that I’m not always equipped to handle, particularly survivor’s guilt. The fact that I’m here and so many other Vietnamese people aren’t feels like a cruel twist of fate. I am not special. I was lucky. 

Today I have come to accept that I will probably never be able to fill in the blanks of my family’s story. Maybe some of our community’s elders – who suffered the most – are right in teaching the younger generation that some memories really do belong in the past, buried forever. Bless them for not wanting to pass on their suffering. At the same time, I also know that unprocessed trauma has a way of showing up uninvited, passing on to others and revealing its effects in unexpected ways. 

Since August 2021, I have chosen to cope and reconcile my own complex feelings through helping a handful of Afghan refugees via mutual aid and community storytelling. I didn’t make this docuseries to guilt every Vietnamese refugee and their descendants into speaking up and getting active. I now understand that this work isn’t for everyone. It’s frankly a privilege to get involved without feeling triggered or overwhelmed. 

I made Refuge After War out of deep love for my Vietnamese community’s history and a desire to ensure that we document our own collective memories and synthesize lessons from the past before it’s too late. The world currently faces the worst refugee crisis since World War II, caused not only by war but also by other conflicts, including climate change. 

It behooves us all to understand why people seek refuge, and to accept and learn to cope with the severe consequences of trauma and forced displacement. 

The Vietnamese came in waves over half a century, and had to play the long game – rebuilding communities, becoming self-sufficient and learning to advocate for policy change – in order to make our families whole. As we waited, countless people suffered unspeakable atrocities in search of freedom. Some families, including mine, were forever separated. It’s stunning to hear Nam Loc Nguyen tell us in the series that half a million people died trying to flee Southeast Asia in the years after the Vietnam War, before U.S. policymakers finally instituted orderly departure programs. 

I sincerely hope that Afghans do not suffer the same fate. In this day and age, there’s no reason they have to. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the Vietnamese refugee experience or want to get involved in helping Afghan refugees, here are some next steps to consider: 

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.