Vietnamese Refugees’ Struggle to Adapt to American Society

As Vietnamese refugees entered into the United States starting in the mid- 1970’s, they had to go through refugee camps in order to be integrated into American culture.[1] There were four camps throughout America that temporarily housed refugees, Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.[2]

In these camps, refugees were taught how to fit into American society while waiting for a sponsor. They learned skills that the American government thought would best help refugees’ function in their new environment. These skills consisted of cooking “American” meals and taking classes on American history and government, gender norms, and English.[3]

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Figure 1: Camp Pendleton Vietnamese Refugee Camp, Camp Pendleton Archives, California

Even as refugee’s left the federal camps, many were still not prepared for changes required to navigate American society. Numerous refugees who once held professional jobs in Vietnam were forced to work unskilled jobs when they entered the United States.[4]  Shown below is an excerpt of an article from the Washington Post describing Vietnamese refugee’s job situation:[5]

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Figure 2: Excerpt from Sandra Broadman, “Vietnamese Finds Life Tough in Virginia,” Washington Post, December 19, 1977

While the majority of these refugees were used to a certain lifestyle in Vietnam, that is not what they found in America. To go from a successful life in your home country to basically nothing in your new country was extremely discouraging.Because some refugees were unable to find work or only found low-paying jobs, they turned to federally funded organizations that were set up to help refugees navigate their new lives. One such organization, Welcome House, was used to do this. Welcome House, and other similar organizations, was created to help Vietnamese refugees who were struggling to adapt to American society. They gave refugees a place to learn the skills they needed to get jobs they wanted.[6] In a Washington Post article “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” the creator of Welcome House, Jackie Bong-Wright, gives an interview. She is quoted saying ‘[w]e help them find a place to live, enroll them in English classes, help them get jobs and put them in contact with the proper social agencies.”[7]

People such as Jackie Bong-Wright began to establish organizations such as Welcome House in order to help refugees. The book, Covert Capital, and numerous newspaper articles from the Washington Post describe the problems Vietnamese refugees had with living in a new country. These refugees came from professional jobs in Vietnam, but in America they could only find work in menial jobs. Organizations like Welcome House taught refugees how to best assimilate into their new culture.[8] This was necessary because one of the only ways in which Vietnamese refugees could succeed in America was by integrating as best as possible into American society.

[1] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 175.

[2] Ibid, 175.

[3] Ibid, 176.

[4] Ibid, 179.

[5] Sandra Broadman, “Vietnamese Finds Life Tough in Virginia,” Washington Post, December 19, 1977.

[6] Friedman, 181.

[7] Kerry Dougherty, “Refugees Adjusting to a Land of Plenty,” Washington Post, February 14, 1980.

[8] Friedman, 180-182.

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