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Seeing Vietnamese Refugee Camps In California ‘Hit Me In The Gut’

This story was first published April 9, 2015.

Dan Evans was furious.

So furious he cursed (and he was not someone who swore).

It was 1975 and the Washington state governor had picked up the morning paper and read that Gov. Jerry Brown of California had said Vietnamese refugees wouldn’t be welcome in his state.

“He actually sent his staff out to the airport to try to stop the planes coming in,” recalled Ralph Munro, then Washington's secretary of state.

The United States was pulling out of Vietnam. Refugees were pouring into the U.S. Evans asked Munro to find out more about the refugees. Munro decided to go directly to Camp Pendleton, where the refugees were living. Before boarding his plane to San Diego, Munro called Evans, who had only grown more furious.

“He said, ‘If you see that son of a – Jerry Brown, you just remind him what it says on the base of the Statue of Liberty,'” Munro said.

When Munro arrived, the enormity of the issue hit him in the gut.

“The sun was starting to set and I came over this hill and I just saw thousands of tents,” he said.

Munro found the commanding officer in a trailer at the camp. He waited for an hour to speak with him.

“I represent the state of Washington,” Munro said. “We are trying to figure out ways we can help. We'd like to consider and probably resettle some of these people in our state.”

The officer stared at Munro.

“He said, ‘Do you want these people?’ And I said, ‘Yes we do. I'm pretty sure we do.’ And he just had the biggest look of relief that somebody actually was there to help.”

As Munro walked through the rows and rows of brown Army tents, past the smelly open latrines, refugees spoke with him in English. They had been there a day or two, but word had already spread through the camp that they weren’t wanted. They were discouraged.

When Munro left the base that night, he drove past San Clemente, about 45 minutes away.

“I had just left General Ky, who'd been the leader of Vietnam, and I drove across the freeway and there is President Nixon's house,” Munro said. “He was a recluse there, living in absolute solitude at that time. And I just thought how ironic this was. The world changes so fast.”

Washington state ultimately welcomed in 500 Vietnamese people, then 2,000 more, and then 1,500 more.

Resettling people was a puzzle – a state had never done that before, Munro said.

The edict was that the refugees would not be on welfare – they would get jobs.

The mayor of Miami warned them not to settle everyone in one location, because that could result in a ghetto – which is what happened with the Cubans in Miami.

Social workers from the University of Washington School of Social Work insisted the refugees settle in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, but the state refused, instead choosing to send the refugees all over the state.

“The first jobs they had were very, very difficult,” Munro said. He met Xihn shucking oysters on the beach in Olympia. Xihn went on to win five West Coast oyster shucking competitions – and to open a renowned restaurant in Shelton.

Others shoveled manure and cleaned chicken houses. But the Vietnamese workers had one goal in mind, Munro said: to have their children excel in school.

“They had foresight to realize that the next generation was the important one,” he said. “Those kids have done amazingly well.”

Today few people recognize Ralph Munro. But occasionally a child of one of those refugees will spot him on the street.

"They'll say, ‘My grandpa says you saved my life,’” he said. “People don't realize that when you're in public service you have so many rewards that go on for decades and decades.”

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