Our state has a long and distinguished history as a place of refuge, as a welcoming locale that allows newcomers to join in the quest for the American Dream. Now, with an influx of refugees from Afghanistan coming to the United States, Washington again is serving as a beacon for the world’s downtrodden.
“As you continue to take all measures necessary to provide swift passage for those fortunate enough to reach safety outside of Afghanistan, I can affirm that Washington stands ready to aid,” Gov. Jay Inslee recently wrote to President Joe Biden.
Republican leaders have led that chorus. “We have seen the tremendous generational benefit of welcoming political refugees to our state and providing them with the precious gift of freedom,” wrote Rep. J.T. Wilcox and Sen. John Braun, the Legislature’s minority leaders. “We are confident in our ability as a state to take bold action because we have done it before.”
Specifically, Washington did it in 1975, following the fall of Saigon and the end of American military involvement in Vietnam. Led by Republican Gov. Dan Evans, the state was the only one in the country to develop a state-run resettlement program to welcome arriving refugees. Many other states at the time were actively trying to prevent the settlement of Vietnamese refugees, whose country had been torn apart by decades of war.
“I said that’s bull and we’re not like that and we issued a call for citizens to help,” Evans, 95, recently told The Seattle Times. “And there was a lot of opposition to doing anything for Vietnamese in the state, but fortunately there was also an overwhelming number of people who said they would help.”
Evans and his wife personally greeted the first-arriving refugees, with the governor reciting a couple sentences in Vietnamese. “It wasn’t much, but it’s a help when you’ve got people who are stranded 10,000 miles away from their homes not knowing where they’re going to be,” Evans recalled.
That welcoming spirit and the community help enlisted by the state government will be necessary again, nearly a half-century later.
The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, after 20 years of war, quickly led to a return of the oppressive Taliban regime as the ruling faction. The experience has provided an abject lesson in the futility of nation-building and the fruitlessness of believing America can export democracy to regions with complicated histories that are poorly understood by our leaders.
During the past two decades, thousands of Afghanis have assisted U.S. troops as translators or couriers or guides or soldiers. Their commitment to American troops warrants a reciprocal effort. As Wilcox and Braun wrote: “By helping the Afghan people escape the Taliban, we can do more than express our solemn gratitude to our veterans here in Washington state. We can show them that their service was not in vain.”
We also can demonstrate that this nation lives up to its ideals, that it truly does welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
State officials are beginning to process refugees from Afghanistan and are preparing for more. Sarah Peterson, the state’s refugee coordinator, told KOMO-TV News in Seattle: “We could receive anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 people.”
Undoubtedly, that influx will test the political tension and xenophobia that currently marks American politics. But in the end, we trust that Washington’s welcoming nature will be extended to fellow humans who are simply trying to improve their lives.