by Don Sensenig,
Eastern Mennonite Missions, Saigon, 1963-1973
MCC U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, 1975-1990
During the final days of the war in Việt Nam in March and April of 1975, about 130,000 South Vietnamese fled their homeland in fear of the new governing authorities. Most who left were urban professionals, many of whom were associated with the previous government. They fled by boat and by air, seeking refuge in neighboring countries and beyond. The vast majority of these refugees were accepted by President Gerald Ford for resettlement in the United States, which had supported the overthrown government of the Republic of Việt Nam.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) continued to send aid to reunified Việt Nam, the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam. MCC also responded to the sudden influx of refugees to the United States, beginning with a small program to assist in resettling these refugees in the summer of 1975.
The Indiantown Gap National Guard facility in southeastern Pennsylvania was one of four large U.S. military barracks which provided temporary housing to the arriving flood of migrants. The other camps were in Florida, Arkansas, and California. The U.S. government relied on civilian “voluntary agencies” to provide sponsors to resettle the refugees out of the military camps into completely new and unfamiliar settings all across the country. Sponsors provided refugees with housing and necessities to help them start their new lives and helped them find work and learn English until they could “get on their feet.” The government provided short-term finances to help with initial expenses.
MCC’s U.S. headquarters is located about 30 miles from Indiantown Gap, and two MCC staff persons — Trần Xuân Quang and myself, Donald Sensenig — worked with Church World Service, a relief and service agency supported by many of the nation’s Protestant churches, to sponsor families and individuals, mostly into the surrounding areas of central Pennsylvania. By the end of 1975, all of the approximately 17,000 refugees in this camp had been sponsored and found homes across the country. MCC had found sponsors for several hundred of these refugees. In 1976, sponsors were found for another 140 or more individuals, part of an ongoing exodus from Việt Nam. There were also a number of Hmong refugees from Laos who were also being accepted by the U.S. This work, of helping refugees find new homes, continued into following years, with Quang and myself providing counseling and support services for sponsoring churches and new refugee arrivals.
In the late 1970s, a larger stream of refugees—often called “boat people”—began leaving Việt Nam, landing on the shores of other countries in the area, including Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Indonesia. After making landfall, refugees would be interned and held until the U.S. or an allied country would accept them. In 1979, the Canadian government approved a program enabling voluntary agencies to sponsor refugees. MCC Canada soon signed an agreement to do so. During the spring of that year I traveled across Canada for several weeks with MCC Canada’s Art Driedger to inform the constituency of this new effort. It developed into a significant program, and thousands of Vietnamese refugees made their way to Canada with MCC’s help.
During 1979, approximately 700 refugees were sponsored through MCC in the United States. In 1980, MCC hired two additional staff people for the program and sponsored 800 Indochinese refugees. Another 500 were sponsored in 1981.
A significant portion of staff time was invested in follow-up counseling with sponsors and newly-arrived refugees, some by phone and letter, some by staff travel across the country. I had lived in Việt Nam from 1963 to 1973 while working for Eastern Mennonite Missions, and my ability to speak Vietnamese was an important asset.
By 1982, the flow of Indochinese refugees was decreasing, although 80 Cambodians were included in the approximately 200 refugees sponsored that year. In the following years,the flow of sponsorships continued, but the MCC Immigration and Refugee Program also began focusing on refugees—undocumented persons—fleeing violence in Central America. Assistance was especially needed because the U.S. government did not accept these people as legal refugees, and MCC and others often had to do their work in opposition to government efforts. Many asylum seekers were aided to apply for resettlement in Canada. In the meantime, sponsorship for legally-approved refugees from Việt Nam and elsewhere continued in significant numbers.
By 1990, when the program was closed as MCC’s priorities moved elsewhere, over 5,100 refugees had been resettled. The number of undocumented asylum seekers assisted is more difficult to determine but was certainly over 500. Some MCC regional offices in the U.S. continued programs to assist refugees and undocumented persons, and many individual congregations also remain involved.
A large network of relationships had been established and nurtured during these 15 years which continues into the future. My thanks to the thousands of persons who contributed to this effort.