For over 30 years, Little Saigon has been a social, cultural, and economic hub for the Vietnamese-American community in the Greater Seattle area. • Artistic rendering of archival image
For over 30 years, Little Saigon has been a social, cultural, and economic hub for the Vietnamese-American community in the Greater Seattle area. • Artistic rendering by Ryan Catabay of archival image

When Kim Long Nguyen and others reflect on the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and the origins of the Vietnamese American community in Washington state, they are saddened by the increasing frequency of deaths they’ve witnessed in recent years. Many of the first wave Vietnamese leaders who struggled and persevered—without complaint, without fanfare—to provide an opportunity for the next generation have quietly passed away.

Nguyen, who headed up the Refugee Federation Services Center for 17 years, doesn’t want to forget the sacrifices and bravery of these first generation refugees. But he also doesn’t want the public to forget the gutsy elected officials and government workers who opened up state services to the new arrivals or the generous community members—many of them Asian American—who helped families find housing, learn English and navigate through the American system in the early years.

“I want to say thank you to Ralph Munro,” Nguyen said. “I want to say thank you to Dan Evans. I want to say thank you to Mike Lowry, Gary Locke, and many others.”

In his litany of praises, Nguyen acknowledged three key Asian American community leaders who greatly impacted the lives of the refugees: Alan Sugiyama, former director of the Center for Career Alternatives; Tsuguo “Ike” Ikeda, former director of the Atlantic Street Center; and Arlene Oki, who worked for many years at the Seattle Human Services Department.

The Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos paved the way for the Vietnamese, Nguyen said. “I want to say thank you to them. In 10 years more, I don’t know how many of those people will be left to say thank you to.”

Nguyen remembers meeting Sugiyama as a volunteer at Camp Murray. Sugiyama was a human relations counselor at Franklin High School. Sugiyama agreed to help develop a resource guide. “Today, you can find Asian food in just about any store, but that was not the case in 1975,” Sugiyama recalled. “So, for example, my resource guide listed local stores that sold Asian foods and other items like rice cookers or woks. It listed Asian churches, temples and social service and government agencies.”

Sugiyama said that during his two weeks at Camp Murray, he noticed “how scared and surprised” the Vietnamese were. They were “scared because everything was different to them, but surprised that people sincerely wanted to help them.”

“It’s absolutely incredible how far the Vietnamese have come since 1975 when Camp Murray was their first home in America,” Sugiyama remarked.

In 1975, Ikeda was working as director of the Atlantic Street Center, a social service agency supporting low-income residents in inner-city Seattle. He served as director from 1953 to 1986. He recalled being approached by Nguyen. “He asked me to help him organize and raise money for the Refugee Federation Service Center in the early years,” Ikeda said. “They were open to that help and very committed to their people. They worked exceedingly hard at that. Being fellow Asians, I felt very comfortable being with them and they with me. We were both suffering financially, so we could relate to one another.”

Ikeda’s agency provided a home for the Dat Moi newspaper, the first Vietnamese newspaper in Seattle and the United States. “The editor of the Dat Moi, Mr. Vinh Vu, pleaded with me to help him,” Ikeda said. “But I told him they should do it themselves because it’s a Vietnamese publication and I’m Japanese American.”

Ikeda relented, agreeing to serve as president of the board of the newspaper from 1977 to 1982: “It started as a weekly publication. They needed technical help, help with stories. Mr. Vu was a very thoughtful responder to our comments, very open.”

Ikeda, a Japanese American, revealed a very personal reason for his willingness to help the Vietnamese community. During World War II, Ikeda was a teenager in Portland when his family was uprooted and incarcerated. “I made a promise to myself when I entered the camp and there were soldiers with rifles pointed at us that I would fight for social justice,” he said. “I promised that I would fight to never let this kind of nonsense happen to any other group of people.”

In 1979, Ikeda served on the board of the National Indochina Refugee Action Center in Washington, D.C. “The staff there were all white,” Ikeda said. “I felt that there should be a national conference of Vietnamese leaders. I volunteered to help organize the conference, which was held in Santa Ana. Afterwards, there was a written report which was distributed publicly because I demanded that the results be known.”

Oki recalled that her first contact with the Vietnamese refugees was in 1978 when she began working for Seattle Mayor Charles Royer. Prior to joining the Mayor’s office, Oki had been a vocal parent advocate, calling for more resources and better teacher training for Seattle’s southeast schools, heavily made up of students of color. Her own children were students there.

“The Vietnamese were continuing to stream into the city in large numbers during the early months of Royer’s administration,” Oki said. “Most of the new arrivals had limited or no English proficiency and certainly no resources. Many were members of wealthy families who owned businesses or held leadership positions in government, but to survive had to take jobs as janitors, gardeners or other unskilled work in the U.S.”

Oki, a key point person between the City of Seattle and the refugee community, said Washington was one of the few states to allocate funds for refugee services. The Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance was established in the Department of Social and Health Services to coordinate the allocation of federal and state funds for agencies serving refugees.

During that time, Oki worked closely with Nguyen. “I was constantly impressed with Vietnamese leaders and others from Southeast Asia who worked unselfishly, tirelessly, and smartly to provide support for the new arrivals,” she said.

As the refugee population grew, bilingual social service agencies based in the local Asian American community—Asian Counseling and Referral Service, International Community Health Services, International District Housing Alliance and Employment Opportunities Center—swelled their range of services to meet the specific language and cultural needs of the refugees. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese themselves established their own “mutual assistance associations” to provide direct services.

“Churches, temples, and non-profit organizations played a huge role in the resettlement process and if it was not for them, I don’t think the Vietnamese would be as far along as they are today,” Sugiyama said.

Ikeda said the close working relationships between the various Asian American ethnic groups in Seattle helped facilitate the integration of the Vietnamese. “In other cities where there was a large Japanese or Chinese population, that wasn’t the case,” he said. “Here, there was a very non-competitive attitude. We were very busy, but it didn’t seem to bother us. We trusted one another and supported one another.”

Oki said she now marvels at the changes that have taken place over the past 40 years. “It was amazing to see so many Vietnamese restaurants, stores and services cropping up in the Rainier Valley, the ID, and the outer ridges of the ID within five years after their arrival,” she said. “Today, there are Vietnamese restaurants in almost every shopping mall in King County, and everyone loves pho and banh mi.”

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