FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. » When Jonathan Huynh heard the haunting story of two young Syrian boys and their mother fleeing their country and drowning when their small rubber boat capsized on its way to Greece, he saw himself.
The 37-year-old California chiropractor was a toddler when his family took to the seas to flee communist Vietnam. They survived and wound up at a Malaysian refugee camp.
"I just felt like history is repeating itself," said Huynh, who along with other Vietnamese Americans is helping organize a walk-a-thon in Fountain Valley, California, to send medical aid to Syrians fleeing their country’s 4 ½ year-civil war.
Seeing their community’s story in the plight of those boarding tiny, rickety boats for Europe, some Vietnamese Americans are reaching out to help. In addition to the 4-mile walk, some in California have started a Twitter campaign to generate compassion for those taking to the seas and a fundraising drive to support migrant rescue efforts.
More than three decades ago, Vietnamese began fleeing in tiny boats after their country fell to communist rule. Some died, and others wound up in refugee camps before heading to the United States.
Today, the Vietnamese-American population is approaching 2 million and its influence is growing, especially in Orange County, home to the largest segment of the population.
While the politics surrounding the Syrian conflict differ from those after South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975, many Vietnamese Americans said they feel connected to the new refugees.
"I want to see what we can do to help the Syrians because that is us," said Tom Q. Nguyen, a 48-year-old escrow business owner whose mother and sister died at sea in the 1980s.
Several hundred thousand people fleeing war-torn areas in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have sought to reach Europe by sea this year in a growing crisis that has raised diplomatic tensions across the continent.
The U.S. has announced plans to take in 10,000 additional Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year. Secretary of State John Kerry has said the U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, and up to 100,000 in 2017.
Humanitarian groups have urged the U.S. to do more to help, while some U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers have raised concerns that Islamic State group extremists may have infiltrated migrant groups.
Duc Nguyen, who was rescued by a U.S. Navy vessel after escaping Vietnam as a teenager, said he faced reluctance from some community members when he started trying to raise money this summer for the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a rescue group based in Malta.
So the 51-year-old filmmaker and other Vietnamese Americans started a Twitter campaign asking people to make and upload videos saying why they care. Since then, he said, he’s getting a positive response.
"I want to create a movement to get people to choose whether they care," he said.
Nam Loc Nguyen, who recently retired from refugee work at Catholic Charities in Los Angeles, said he has been in touch with Vietnamese groups in California and Texas that want to help resettle Syrian refugees. In Canada,Vietnamese community members are helping raise money to sponsor them, he said.
For many years, Vietnamese in the United States and Canada had to focus on getting the remaining Vietnamese refugees safely resettled overseas, and are now able to reach out to other communities, he said.
Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said refugees have spoken out in the past on behalf of asylum-seekers who haven’t received as warm a welcome in the country to which they fled.
"This is truly inspiring," she said of the Vietnamese community’s efforts, "especially in light of how disgraceful much of the response to the Syrian refugees has been."