Visit highlights turbulent time for former refugees

HILLSDALE — It was 1975 and the two young sailors, Cau Huynh and Hoa Ngo, left their country without a word about their departure or their destination. Knowing where they were would have put those left behind in danger. The U.S.-backed government in what was then Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was rapidly collapsing. The sailors’ ship escaped to Guam, a U.S. territory and naval base, and from there the two men were eventually transferred to an Army camp in Pennsylvania, not as sailors but as refugees.

They were among tens of thousands who fled South Vietnam to the U.S. in the wake of the victory of the North, and the word went out in this country that the federal government needed help resettling the people who had been our allies in what had been until recently America’s longest war. People in Columbia County responded.

Catholic Charities working with Claverack residents Jim and Meg Cashen made arrangements for a group of 45 Vietnamese, the two young sailors among them, to work on a farm in the southern part of the county to help with the harvest. But shortly after they arrived their sponsors received a call from the farmer: the Vietnamese had to leave, immediately.

Thinking back on that time, Mr. Hyunh, Mr. Ngo and the Cashens remain puzzled at this sudden change of attitude. Mr. Ngo suggests it was a language barrier and leaves it at that. He and Mr. Huynh have other, happier memories of their time here, which they shared briefly Saturday afternoon, August 6, on a visit with their wives and children to Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Mr. Cashen, who helped arrange Saturday’s visit, remembered what a scramble it was to find emergency housing for the 45 workers; the two men were among six Vietnamese who came to live at the Cashen’s home, with two people in the Cashen house and another four in their guest house; three others stayed with Ghent residents Hank and Sandy Burfeind, members of the local Lutheran Church who also joined the small reunion Saturday. And about 20 of the workers found shelter at a student housing building at the Hawthorne Valley School, which is why the caravan of cars stopped there.

Some of the refugees have remained in the county, Mr. Cashen said. Mr. Hyunh and Mr. Ngo stayed for about a year but then went back to Pennsylvania. They both became machinists; they’ve been U.S. citizens for a quarter century. They married sisters, who were among the thousands who fled the Vietnam by sea in small vessels and became known at the time as the Boat People. Here in the U.S. they raised families. Gradually they reestablished contact with their relatives in Vietnam. Both men have returned there for a visit.

Mr. Ngo remembers the difficulties of adjusting to the language and the culture of his new home. They were, he said, “very strange to me,” adding a single word of description: “Scary.” But he has pleasant memories of visiting the homes where fellow refugees stayed and cooking Vietnamese food. The Cashens confirmed that the food was good.

Ms. Burfeind remembered another benefit of having the refugees as guests. “Our children got so much out of this,” she said.

Mr. Hyunh recalls that when he first arrived in this country he received help in the form of a packet from the Red Cross. The eastern Pennsylvania community where the Hyunh family now lives has a Buddhist temple, and Mr. Hyunh says that he and others who pray there now reach out to help others around the world who are less fortunate. “We want to give back,” he said. 

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