The boats they came in weren’t designed to hold up to 200 people at a time. They were already falling apart before they even set sail on their journey but they were the only way for the refugees to leave their now fallen country. It took a governor from Iowa to lead the way to offer assistance to those people simply known as “boat people” when they had nowhere else to go.
In April of 1975, with the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war, approximately 125,000 Vietnam refugees were left without a home or even a country after mass evacuations were forced to those living in the country. With only the boats as a means of escape, those who braved the trip to America had to deal with extreme starvation, pirate attacks and constant drownings. Even with all of these hardships, more than 100,000 of the refugees made it to America to re-start their lives.
Arthur Crisfield, a former U.S. government employee based in Laos, wrote to 30 American governors asking for help in providing a safe haven to the refugees. Governor Robert Ray of Iowa responded not only to Crisfield’s letter but also a personal request from President Ford to offer resettlement to those from Vietnam. This decision was unpopular in Iowa but Ray ignored the critics and created the Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement by signing a two year contract with the Department of State.
The task force was staffed with three existing state employees and two more were hired. In September of 1975, the American Embassy granted refugee status for the Tai Dam and Governor Ray accepted responsibility for the resettlement of 1,200 Tai Dam. By November of that year, the first three plane loads with refugees arrived in Des Moines.
In January of 1979, CBS aired a documentary named “Boat People” which showed the plight of the refugees living in overcrowded camps in Malaysia. Governor Ray saw this documentary and was so moved by it that he pledged to President Carter to help 1,500 additional refugees resettle to Iowa. This decision was faced by a backlash from Iowa citizens with a Des Moines Register poll showing 51% of respondents against the refugees resettling in Iowa.
Governor Ray announced the formation of Iowa SHARES (Iowa Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation) in November of 1979. The campaign ran from Thanksgiving to Christmas of that year and raised over $540,000 that was used to purchase food, medicine and other aid for those living in Cambodia. An orphanage was built using funds raised by Iowa Shares and helped various UNICEF projects on the Thai-Cambodia border.
Iowa has continued it’s efforts in helping refugees since the 1970’s by welcoming Eastern Europeans in the 1980’s and Bosnians in the 1990’s. In 2005, Governor Ray was the first governor or former governor to receive Iowa’s highest civilian honor, The Iowa Award, by the Iowa Centennial Memorial Commission.
In November of 2016, Governor Terry Brandstad declared he wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees to resettle in Iowa. Hopefully in the future, Iowa will once again offer a safe place to land to those who have lost everything.
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