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In 1975, the White House was occupied by a man from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the capital of South Vietnam fell to the control of the opposition. A crisis was faced: hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom were innocent, some of whom had helped the United States in the war, were desperate to flee or lose their lives.

America had just lost its first war in recent memory. People were angry, afraid. Many were out of work, unemployment was high. People were divided — those against the war, those who had lost loved ones in the war. People were concerned about how to receive back the young men who had sacrificed so much, more than was known at the time, on Vietnamese soil. People were desperate for life to get back to normal.

So it wasn’t an easy sell when President Ford embarked on a marketing tour for his new idea. Over the coming months, the U.S. would welcome 131,000 people from South Vietnam as refugees.

The director who President Ford put in charge of that program remembers facing opposition, especially from California, which had a governor that believed there were already too many foreigners, and too many people on welfare in his state. The director recalls, “…it was a moral blow to us that they were not supportive. So at one point, I had to tell the governor that I would be able to go on TV and to the media and to the voluntary agencies and announce that the governor did not want any church, synagogue, family, former military family in California to be able to help these people.” That threat changed the governor’s mind.

Today, the man in the White House is not from Grand Rapids. And he’s not stumping for refugee resettlement. In fact, by March 31st, the halfway point for Fiscal Year 2018, the administration will have resettled less than 10,000 refugees.

Never, since the beginning of refugee resettlement in this country, has the number been this low.

You’ll recall the marches that took place after the proposed Muslim Ban last year. At that time, the U.S. was still a world leader when it came to resettling refugees, in some ways setting the bar that other countries followed for their own hospitality in this unprecedented time of displacement of human lives. But that ban, and then subsequent administrative decisions — like slashing the number of visas allowed for refugees, failing to hire enough employees to process them, and barring whole nationalities from applying — has effectively rewritten this universally beloved part of our nation’s history. And this has gone largely unnoticed by the American people — and most tragically, by the church.

Where are the refugees?

Subsisting in camps, with a bag of rice and a cup of oil in meager food rations, trying to grow some greens the tarp that serves as a roof, watching a beloved child grow and develop without adequate nutrition.

Where are the refugees?

Afraid to allow their young daughters to use the latrines, because the walk is too long, and the danger is too great from those who would take advantage of the vulnerability of a child.

Where are the refugees?

Playing pickup soccer games in fields near their tents, hoping there’s still room to play tomorrow as hundreds more families arrive every day — no room for them, no heart to turn them away.

Where are the refugees?

They are not here. They are not being welcomed at airports by church members, who have practiced saying “Murakaza neza!” with their kids, made signs on posters, made doctor’s appointments and found second hand beds.

They are not here. They are not starting businesses, and contributing to job growth. They are not going to be able to make a net contribution of $63 billion this decade like they did in the last.

The moral blow of 1975 for the administration of that day was a governor in California who was putting the brakes on resettlement. And the threat that changed his mind was the picture of someone going on television and reporting, “the governor did not want any church, synagogue, family, former military family in California to be able to help these people.”

I wonder if such a threat would carry weight today. Friends of Jesus Christ, the president does not want any church to be able to help these people.

Where are the refugees?



Here’s how you can take action:

Email the President and your representatives in Washington DC by clicking here.

Faith Leaders: Sign on to this faith leader letter to call on the administration to at least 45,000 refugees this fiscal year and commit to resettle at least 75,000 refugees in FY 2019.

Join the March 28th National Call-In Day: Click here to call your 2 Senators and 1 Representative on March 28th and urge them to do everything in their power to hold the administration accountable to resettle at least 45,000 refugees in 2018. A sample call script is available here.

Host an #WhereRtheRefugees Public Witness Event: Click here to learn more about how to use interfaith vigils, press conferences, actions, and foot washing ceremonies, and other events to escalate pressure on our national leaders.

Amplify on Social Media: You can tweet at your Members of Congress or post on Facebook. Some sample social media posts are available here.



Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, that puts it in context! Thanks.

  • Bob Van Stright says:

    An appropriate reminder and challenge. I’m putting March 28 on my calendar.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Thank you, Kate. I pray for you and your colleagues at the OSJ often. I am grateful for your leadership, and you must be so tired.

  • George E says:

    Kate, Kate, Kate —

    Was the country divided back in 1975? Sure, but the division was more than “those against the war, those who had lost loved ones in the war,” unless you include those who supported South Viet Nam in with your latter category (which would have applied to me, certainly). And realize that “those against the war” were the ones that ensured all those Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao people came to be refugees. President Ford, to his credit, insisted that since the country had refused to keep its commitment to the people in Southeast Asia, the least we could do was to help some of the victims relocate. That was the least we could do for our abandoned allies.

    Now, today: There are 70 million refugees in the world. 70 million. In recent years the US took in about 0.1%. In Obama’s last year, he scheduled that to increase to about 0.16% after he left office. And how many of these refugees came to their situation in the manner the Boat People had? How many current refugees came to be because the US had pulled the rug out from under them? Well, you could reasonably say that the Iraqi refugees might qualify, given Obama’s dismissal of that “JV” band of terrorists. Yet despite your attempt to draw a parallel between Boat People and today’s refugees, you fail to suggest that our intake be focused on Iraqis. Why not?

    I can guess at the answer, given your implication that Trump does not want churches helping refugees. I get it. Your purpose is more about bashing Trump than it is about helping refugees.

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