For state Rep. Khanh Pham, her family's own history is reflected in her co-leadership of a task force that proposed $18 million for resettlement of up to 1,200 refugees from Afghanistan to Oregon.
Pham, a Democrat from the Jade District of Portland, was born to parents who fled Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) when North Vietnam took over U.S.-backed South Vietnam. Many refugees were sent to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, but ended up in nearby Oklahoma, where Pham was born in 1978.
For Pham, seeing the images of Kabul fall to the Taliban on Aug. 15 after the U.S. military withdrawal from the Afghan capital were eerily reminiscent of what happened in Saigon in 1975. (Active U.S. military involvement in Vietnam stopped in 1973.)
But Pham said her goal was to ensure that unlike her parents and other Vietnamese refugees back then, she is determined that there will be a welcome mat for Afghan refugees when they begin arriving in Oregon starting early next year.
"I do remember even back then, there was a lot of refugee fear-mongering, but also a lot of generosity. So it means so much to come full circle as a state representative," Pham said.
"I think it is such an incredible honor to be able to advocate for the best of Oregon's values — and the values of this country — to say we have a moral responsibility to welcome these people who have been impacted by our intervention in Afghanistan over the past 20 years."
Pham, 43, is in her first term from District 46. She spoke Monday, Nov. 29, during a virtual conversation sponsored by the Portland Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.
Pham and Sen. Kayse Jama, a Democrat from East Portland who himself is a refugee from Somalia, led the task force that asked for $18 million for resettlement services — mainly housing and short-term food. The full Legislature approved the request Dec. 13 as part of a larger budget package.
"In a state that is facing severe shortages of affordable housing, we want to provide housing assistance for those first few months so they can find a job, get their kids enrolled in school, and be able to have a less traumatic start than many refugees have been able to experience when they came here."
Based on an estimate of 60,000 Afghan refugees, Pham said Oregon can expect to resettle about 2%, or 1,200. Many will be in large families.
The overall number of refugees arriving in the United States dropped sharply from 85,000 in 2016 under President Barack Obama — up 15,000 over the three prior years — to just 11,800 in 2020 under President Donald Trump. Under Trump, federal aid for refugee resettlement services also dwindled, but Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Legislature kept some of those services going from the state budget.
"We are actually in a much better position than other states," Pham said. "We have half the staffing we had during President Obama's years. But even having half puts us far ahead of other states that didn't have any funding for refugees."
The plan endorsed by the task force drew on advice from Oregon's refugee resettlement services and the state housing and human services agencies. Pham said it has support from both parties and both chambers of the Legislature.
President Joe Biden proposed to raise the cap on refugees from the 15,000 set by Trump for 2021 to 62,500. After a public outcry, Biden raised it to 125,000, as he promised during his campaign — but most resettlement experts say they recognize the actual number will fall short until the Biden administration has had a chance to restore services.
Like many of the Vietnamese refugees four decades ago, Afghan refugees are housed at U.S. military bases temporary. Pham said the state has been told that about 600 will come in February or March, and the rest will follow.
"I know many Vietnamese have stepped up in solidarity, because this is so reminiscent of some of the scenes they went through," she said.
Back then, critics said Vietnamese refugees harbored Communists and would take jobs away from other Americans. Pham said similar things are being said about Afghan refugees harboring terrorists and displacing others from jobs.
She said time has produced a different story.
"The past 40 years have shown that Vietnamese, like all the immigrants before us, have enriched the fabric of the United States," she said. "As long as we give them the supports necessary to get their children integrated into schools and for them to find jobs, I am sure we will be enjoying Afghan food just as much as Vietnamese pho (a soup with beef slices and rice noodles) has become part of American cuisine."
NOTE: Updates with legislative approval of the $18 million request during a special session Monday, Dec. 13.
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