Former Refugees Rise to Elected Office and Beyond


 Photo 1 - Kathy Tran

Election night this week was the culmination of a long story of resilience, determination, and courage for Kathy Tran, a former refugee from Viet Nam.   She became the first female Asian-American to join Virginia’s House of Delegates and the first Vietnamese-American to be elected at any level in that state. Tran swamped her opponent Lolita Mancheno-Smoak with a runaway victory, 61 percent to 39 percent, to take an open seat in a Northern Virginia district.

“As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Kathy’s record of excellent leadership and advocacy is a powerful testament to the American Dream,” said Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Charniele Herring.

“I ran because I couldn’t sit on the sidelines,” Tran told CNN.  The day after the election, she added, “Last night was a clear rejection of hate, racism and violence,” as a slew of diverse candidates emerged victorious across the state.

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Closer to us in the Northwest, Wilmot Collins defeated his opponent in a nonpartisan race to become the first black mayor in the state of Montana.  Collins arrived in Helena 23 years ago as a refugee from the civil war in Liberia.  Now he will take the mayor’s seat in that same city.

After the election, Collins told the Guardian newspaper that he’d never thought of politics as a part of his future when he fled Liberia at the age of 31. Now at the age of 54, he is ready to lead and serve.  He says when he arrived in the US, “My only thing was, I hope they can give me a second chance.  That’s all I needed.  This country and this state and this city provided me a second chance.”  In Tuesday’s election, Collins, whose work has included specializing in child protection for the Montana Dept. of Health and Human Services, unseated a multi-term incumbent and made history.

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In Seattle, former Vietnamese refugee Uyen Nguyen has gone from political neophyte to a force to be reckoned with.  A year ago, she invited friends to support Emerge, a group devoted to developing strong women candidates for office.  “I had zero experience in political work, but I just felt a deep need to do something because I wanted to support women and minority candidates to make sure they could participate and win,” says Uyen.  She now serves as the Board Chair of Emerge Washington.  Across the country, at least 85 Emerge alumnae won their elections this week.

Uyen knows the refugee journey from her own tragic effort to find safety and liberty. At the age of 10, Uyen fled Viet Nam on a small fishing boat.  During the journey at sea, her young brother, sister, and mother all perished.  She and an older brother arrived in the US heartbroken and bewildered.  Cared for by an aunt and uncle in California, Uyen made the most of every opportunity in her life, becoming a scientist, a small business owner, a restauranteur (the spectacular Nue restaurant in Seattle is owned by Uyen and her husband), and a volunteer on behalf of orphans and foster children.  She is an avid supporter of Refugees Northwest and, just days ago, she and her husband were approved as foster parents for a refugee child coming to the US on their own.

“It crushes my heart to see so many people deprived of the American dream.  What I find so amazing about America is that it’s a land of opportunity.  You have to work hard and smart.  But infrastructure allowed me to get where I am today, things like the Pell Grant and scholarships helped me get through school.  Now I am solidly middle class.  For someone like me with no network and not a dime in my pocket when I came to have the life I have now is amazing.  And I want that for other people,” she tells us.

In recognition of her deep understanding of the issues and her devotion to others, Uyen has been named a Sister on the Planet Ambassador by Oxfam, providing a platform to fight global poverty, hunger, and injustice, and to speak up for the 65 million people displaced around the world.  “These are people who’ve been forced to leave their homes because of violence, persecution, and war.  This represents one in every 113 people on the planet, a number unprecedented in recorded human history,” she explains.

At Refugees Northwest, we believe in the limitless potential of people like Kathy Tran, Wilmot Collins, and Uyen Nguyen.  We see the strength of newly resettled refugees every day in our work, and know the contributions that each of these human beings can make to our communities.  Our services include training in job skills, ESL classes, help in attaining housing, pursuing citizenship, mental health support, advocacy, and much more.

Refugees Northwest offers the only certified torture treatment center in Washington State, helping survivors overcome trauma, injuries, and serious medical conditions.  More than 60 percent of our own staff came to the US as refugees or people seeking asylum.  We are honored to have served the area for 35 years as part of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, and we ask you to support our neighbors through these critically important programs that make our area richer and stronger.

Program Director of Refugees Northwest Beth Farmer said, “I remain in awe of these former refugees who’ve arrived in the US with nothing, having survived trauma, loss, and dislocation, and then go on to master a new language, do whatever it takes to succeed in their education, and now are giving back as elected officials.  It’s so impressive and deeply American.”