By The Herald Editorial Board
John Haley was a young professor at the University of Washington School of Law when the United States’ war in Vietnam slammed to a bitter conclusion in late April of 1975, with the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam, and the exodus of Americans and Vietnamese who had worked with the U.S. military and government agencies.
Haley, who is retired but remains on the faculty at the UW law school as an associate professor, said it was his past connection with the Southeast Asian country that prompted him to open his home that June to a refugee family from Vietnam, among the first group of 500 refugees who were brought to Washington state at the invitation of Gov. Dan Evans.
Haley, in a phone interview last week, explained that he spent some time visiting Saigon in 1965 during a teaching fellowship in Japan. Even during the large influx of U.S. military personnel to South Vietnam at the time, Haley said he got a sense for what that country and its people were like. “It was a peaceful city,” he said.
When Haley, the son of a World War II veteran, returned to the U.S. and began law school after his fellowship, he was drafted. Ineligible for a deferment, Haley took the test to go to officer’s school and “passed the stupid exam,” but declined. Uncomfortable with the thought of having to send men into battle, Haley said he waited to go in as a private. Haley, through the luck of the draw and a change in draft rules, was never called up.
Two things, he said, weighed on his mind when refugees began arriving at U.S. military bases in 1975. He wanted to provide some service to his country, as his father had, he said. And he thought of his visit to Saigon.
“I wanted the chance to do something helpful for the people who had helped us,” he said. “This was a way I could provide some help.”
He and his wife and two young children opened their home to a refugee family, hosting them for a few months until the husband found work with the state as an accountant.
We are now called to answer similar opportunities to help — for humanitarian reasons and in service to our own country — as refugees continue their arrival from Afghanistan, again at the bitter conclusion of war.
Even before last weekend’s fall of Afghanistan’s capital, refugees from the nation, torn by a 20-year war, have been arriving in the United States, in Washington state and in Snohomish County.
As of mid-August, an estimated 5,300 immigrants have come to the U.S. using Special Immigrant Visas intended for those who, such as interpreters and agency staff, assisted the U.S. military and government during the war. The Biden administration has estimated that up to 65,000 Afghan allies and their families are in need of evacuation, out of fears of persecution because of the assistance they provided to the United States.
Washington state, continuing the tradition set by Gov. Evans, has been one of the main hubs for Afghan resettlement in recent years, The Herald’s Jake Goldstein-Street reported last week. Between October 2020 and July 2021, the state had welcomed nearly 350 Afghan immigrants and in recent years has received about 8 percent of Afghans coming to the U.S. Locally, 22 Afghans have come to Snohomish County in the past week, many settling in Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace. Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said some 1,200 Afghans are expected to settle in the county in coming months.
Somers and the county council, in a statement following the news out of Afghanistan, called on county residents to provide support and assistance to those arriving.
The county, Somers said, “has a proud history of being a community that welcomes and supports refugees who resettle here, not only in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families, but also as an opportunity to exercise their freedoms.”
The most compelling reasons to “welcome the stranger,” as biblical passages advise, are moral and humanitarian obligations. But there are practical reasons as well, as Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell noted last week.
One is that breaking our word to protect our allies from Afghanistan threatens our reputation and could cause those in other parts of the world to avoid taking the risk of cooperating with the U.S.
Nor should we fear that providing assistance to refugees will become a financial burden. While refugees often rely on assistance in their early months of resettlement here, it’s an investment that pays later dividends in tax revenue, entrepreneurship, a skilled labor pool and a boost of cultural diversity. Rampell noted a 2017 report, initially suppressed by the Trump administration but later leaked to The New York Times, that found that for the 10 years between 2005 and 2014, refugees paid $63 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits, across all levels of government.
Haley, the UW law professor, said his family lost contact over the years with the Vietnamese family they hosted. But they have kept in touch with a second family sponsored by their church, who were among the so-called “boat people,” who in subsequent years escaped Vietnam by sea to other Southeast Asian countries before coming to the U.S.
Haley, while shocked by the chaos at Kabul’s airport and the apparent lack of preparation by U.S. officials in the weeks before Afghanistan fell, said that hasn’t changed his belief in Americans’ responsibility for welcoming and aiding refugees.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the people who worked for us, to assist them in any way possible. I think we’re a big enough country to have a few more refugees.”
How to help
Donations and volunteers are sought by a number of Western Washington organizations assisting Afghan refugees:
Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, based at Everett Community College, is seeking volunteers to teach English and donations of household items.
Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office, based in Auburn, also seeks volunteers to manage cases and mentor children.