March 1, 2024

Benjamin Better

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Mark Bennett: Terre Haute helped refugees find a new life in 1970s | News

America’s involvement in a long war had abruptly ended.

Refugees came from the other side of the world to places in the United States, including Terre Haute.

A network of churches, agencies, schools and colleges in this community found homes, transportation, education and jobs for nearly 200 refugees who came from a different culture and spoke a different language.

It was 1975 — the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. A similar response to a similar predicament is possible — possible — in 2021.

Sandy Bush was among the many Terre Haute residents helping their churches with the local Vietnamese Resettlement Project.

The experience and the Vietnamese family — the Hoangs — assisted by Bush and other members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal church, remain etched in Sandy Bush’s heart.

“It’s probably one of the most memorable things I’ve been involved in,” Bush recalled last week. “They became our friends. To me, that’s the best part of it.”

The Hoangs “were a remarkable family,” she added.

Within the first year of the project, nearly 170 refugees representing 29 families had settled in Terre Haute, according to letters and documents in the Vigo County Public Library Special Collections archives. Many of those papers came from the late Dorothy Drummond, then a college instructor and chairperson of the social ministry committee at Trinity Lutheran Church — one of the primary local houses of worship driving the Vietnamese Resettlement Project, along with Catholic Charities. Drummond headed the project’s Resettlement Coordinating Committee.

The library archives also include personal accounts by two Vietnamese refugees whose families came to Terre Haute after fleeing their war-torn homeland. Both presented their reflections at community forums at Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South high schools in late 1976 and early 1977. They describe the harrowing decision to leave everything behind to live in a foreign land, escaping the takeover of their country, South Vietnam, by communist North Vietnam. The accounts by those two Vietnamese refugees — Khoa G. Pham and Dao Van Ong — are vivid and powerful.

“Most Vietnamese left so suddenly that they could not prepare for their unexpected trip, or for their future life in America,” Ong wrote in 1976. “Not only did they lose their property, many families, in the terrible chaos of the departure, lost the most precious treasure in their life — their husband, their wife or their children.”

Then, while coping with such trauma, those refugees also had to learn to speak and write in a different language, drive a car, perform a skill or trade and the strange customs of a foreign American culture. “Such memories, even today, bring great sadness and make the new life adjustment difficult,” Ong wrote a year after leaving Vietnam for the U.S. Tackling those obstacles had a benefit, though.

“There were many reasons for our coming here,” Pham wrote. “Some feared for their lives. Others chose freedom in democracy over communist tyranny. Gone were those days of turmoil in Saigon. Despite our heavy material and moral loss, and after suffering all the difficulties, we are now living in peace and freedom in America. This is the noblest ideal cherished by all people on earth.”

The refugees’ accounts of the resettlement efforts in Terre Haute also show what this community can accomplish by summoning unity and decency, even in a divisive time.

Memories of the refugee situation in 1975, when U.S. forces left Vietnam and Saigon fell, stir today after the U.S. ended its 20-year involvement in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans began arriving in the U.S. this week. At least 5,000 are coming to Camp Atterbury in Indiana, beginning with the first 1,000 people this weekend as a first stop in their resettlement around the United States. The military training and testing site has the capacity for thousands more, said Brigadier Gen. R. Dale Lyles in a news conference livestreamed Wednesday statewide.

Many refugees fled as the Taliban overtook the government there as the U.S. military began its tumultuous withdrawal from the protracted conflict. Some refugees served as interpreters or provided operational support to American forces. All have had their backgrounds vetted, and will receive medical care if they — like thousands of Americans — test positive for COVID-19, Lyles said.

“We need to be there for folks who were there for us, period,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said of the Afghans, as he joined Lyles in the news conference. “We’ve got to welcome folks here. We sure welcomed their help.”

Holcomb hopes many of the Afghans choose to live in Indiana permanently, and said Hoosier employers are ready to hire them. Some small metros that have declining populations, like Terre Haute and Muncie, could use new residents. Undoubtedly, many refugees will migrate to other parts of the U.S. to join family or friends, but some may decide to stay.

“I do believe folks will fall in love with Indiana as much as we have,” the governor said.

‘So many nice people’

Like the summer of 2021, tensions were high in 1975. President Gerald Ford and Congress approved the resettlement of nearly 140,000 refugees from South Vietnam and Cambodia, where 58,000 American armed service members and two million Vietnamese died through a war that extended from the 1950s to the mid-’70s. The refugee influx in 1975 represented the first wave of more than one million Vietnam war refugees that eventually settled in the U.S.

A coalition of Hauteans gave Vietnamese individuals and families an open-arms reception.

Khoa Pham and his wife and children had fled Saigon on two hours notice, with no time to say goodbye to anyone. “On the way to the airport, I had a last look at my old home, where I had lived for 20 years, at all the familiar streets,” he wrote in his 1976 recount. “I wanted to record all those images in my mind.”

It wasn’t a Point A-to-Point B journey. Pham’s family and other refugees spent time at U.S. bases in the Philippines, Guam and Fort Chafee in Arkansas before coming to Terre Haute, where they were guided into temporary housing. The community helped ease their confusion and uncertainty.

“During our first days, so many nice people stopped to see us, to give us food, clothing and inquire about our condition,” Pham wrote.

“My direct sponsor devoted his mornings to giving us whatever help we needed and treated us with tender care,” Pham continued. “He considered my family as his and took his for mine as we cooperated in mutual respect and understanding. These gestures and attitudes, coupled with the help of many people in Terre Haute, comforted and encouraged us a great deal. Soon the early fears disappeared.”

Federal welfare funds and other aid for refugees and their families through the Vietnamese Assistance Act of 1975 aimed for refugees to be “self-sufficient” within two years, according to the project’s papers in the library archives. To overcome the language barrier, the Vietnamese learned to read and write in English through the Vigo County School Corp., Indiana State University, Ivy Tech, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and volunteer teachers. Job training was offered by ISU, Ivy Tech, local agencies through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 and through employers’ on-the-job instruction. Vietnamese children enrolled in Vigo County schools. Within the first year, 42 refugees in Terre Haute earned their Indiana driver’s license, often after taking lessons from church volunteers.

‘A remarkable family’

E.J. Tarbox, then an ISU humanities professor and member of the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, taught the father of the Hoangs — a Vietnamese family sponsored by the church — to drive. The St. Stephen’s congregation also bought a car, rented and remodeled a home for the family, and guided them to resettlement services.

St. Stephen’s didn’t try to convert the family to be Episcopalian, Bush said, but rather “respected their Buddhist beliefs.” They came to church services not to worship but “to be friendly and express their gratitude,” she added. They sat near the front rows, “which I thought was pretty incredible.”

The family included the husband and wife, her mother and their four children. The parents were both lawyers in Vietnam. “They were terribly bright,” Tarbox said, but their credentials as attorneys did not apply in America.

So, the husband studied social work at ISU, and the wife took cosmetology courses at Harrold’s Beauty Academy, said Sandy Bush, a fellow St. Stephen’s member. The parents continued those careers after moving in 1977 from Terre Haute to Houston, where a large number of Vietnamese resettled because of the familiar climate and proximity to the fishing industry. Their children found successful careers, too, Bush said.

The project, which lasted from 1975 to ‘79, “was very remarkable with the impact it had,” Tarbox said. The refugees generally found acceptance here. “I didn’t feel like we were running into a lot of discrimination, though there was some,” he said.

Bush kept in touch with them for years, and the family revisited Terre Haute in 1987. Likewise, Tarbox visited them in Texas.

“They are an amazing family, among the finest I’ve ever known,” said Bush, now 79 and retired from a career with the then-Vigo County and state welfare departments. “I will always feel I was blessed by their friendship. The church was simply practicing ‘loving our neighbor’ when we agreed to sponsor them. I will never forget how easy they were to love and what an impact they had on my life.”

Bush and Tarbox see parallels to the Afghan refugee situation today.

“It’s been history sort of repeating itself,” Bush said. “I would guess we’ll see Afghan refugees in Terre Haute. I certainly hope that’s the case.”

If an effort similar to Terre Haute’s Vietnamese Resettlement Project materializes, their eventual permanent communities will benefit, said Tarbox, now 87, retired and living in North Carolina.

“To America’s surprise, a lot of those Afghans are going to be well-educated,” he said. “I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”

‘They wanted to learn’

As Dorothy Drummond coordinated the project, her family also sponsored three Vietnamese refugee families through that era.

“In a way, they became like extended family,” said Kathleen Lindstaedt, Drummond’s daughter. Her adventurous mother died in 2018 at age 90 during her seventh trip to China.

Lindstaedt was a teenager then and recalls it as a “great” experience. She and her sisters often entertained the Vietnamese children while their parents gathered to study English at a local church. “They wanted to learn right away,” she recalled. “They wanted to assimilate.”

Their kids adapted quickly. “They were excited to meet new people and learn the language, and did it in no time,” said Lindstaedt, now 62. “They enjoyed learning our traditions, and they shared their traditions with us. We learned so much from them.”

As with other sponsor families of resettling refugees, the Drummonds helped the immigrants find employment, housing and education. “This all happened quickly, and we wanted to make it as smooth as possible because what they had gone through was so painful,” Lindstaedt said.

Her mother got involved after hearing about a national outreach effort by Lutheran and Catholic services in the spring of 1975.

“When she learned that, she said, ‘Why not Terre Haute? We can help,’” said Lindstaedt, who now lives in Indianapolis. “She recognized it needed to be done quickly, and [the Vietnamese refugees] wanted it to be done quickly.”

Dorothy Drummond believed Terre Haute could, collectively, address a dire need by doing the right thing.

“The war was just so rough on us, the Americans, and the Vietnamese,” Lindstaedt said. “It would be unthinkable to not help them at that critical time. We owed that to them.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or