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Fleeing Afghans revive US memories of Vietnam’s ‘babylift’

US immigration updates

The writer is an FT contributing columnist

Nearly half a century ago, Aryn Lockhart fled Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift, in which she and 2,000 other Vietnamese orphans were airlifted to be adopted in the US just weeks before Saigon fell in the humiliating American military defeat of the Vietnam war.

As America watched images of desperate Afghans fleeing their homeland after another US war, Lockhart, 47, remembered that old trauma. “When I saw the pictures of the refugees all crowded on to US planes, I thought, ‘oh my gosh, that looks exactly like the photos of Operation Babylift’, except that they aren’t all babies,” she tells me by telephone. 

She points out that the Saigon airlift was marred by tragedy, just like the Afghan evacuation, which was hit by a suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 13 US military servicemen and women and over 170 civilians. The inaugural flight of Operation Babylift crashed, killing 138 people including 78 children. Lockhart, co-author of Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished, a Memoir of Hope and Healing, says her US adoptive parents told her she was one of the survivors.

Authorising the airlift, former US president Gerald Ford, called it “the least we can do”. Now, we Americans are gearing up to figure out what is “the least we can do’‘ for refugees from another US foreign war. 

US public opinion strongly supports evacuating and relocating Afghans with US connections, or those in danger from the Taliban, and that support crosses party lines, says Dina Smeltz, senior fellow on public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Eight in ten Americans (81 per cent) favour the evacuation and relocation of Afghans who provided support to US and allied forces, including 86 per cent of Democrats, 81 per cent of Republicans and 77 per cent of independents, according to a Chicago Council-IPSOS survey from August 23 to 26.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be an anti-immigrant backlash later. At Fort McCoy, a US Army base in rural Wisconsin, up to 13,000 Afghan refugees are expected. But Doug Rogalla, chair of the local Monroe County Republican Party and a former US serviceman, says: “I think the US has an obligation to help those Afghans who helped us, but we have a bigger obligation to the citizens of the US. I’m not confident the refugees are being properly vetted.” 

Rogalla makes clear that for Republicans in this swing state, which President Joe Biden won by less than 1 per cent of the vote, not all immigrants are created equal. “The issue with these refugees is much less than with those coming across the southern border,” he says, adding: “immigration is not an issue with Republicans, illegal immigration is.”

Cleveland is another Midwest city expecting Afghan refugees. Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, an NGO that works with newcomers to the city, says: “I’ve had people threatening me, saying ‘why would you welcome those people here?’, but my mom spoke a language other than English first, [and ] I grew up in a community that’s majority immigrant,” he says, adding that one of the first offers of help during the current crisis came from former Vietnamese refugees.

Cimperman believes that resettling migrants is “muscle memory for Cleveland”, which was originally settled largely by immigrants from east and southern Europe. “Welcoming refugees helps offset our demographic loss and we have four jobs available for every person willing to fill them.” 

But Arrey Obenson, president of the International Institute of St Louis, who himself emigrated from Cameroon over 20 years ago, says the cultural battle to assimilate in the US will be as hard for the Afghan refugees as for those who came before. “America is the envy of the world but when you get here you find out how complicated it is,” he says.

Lockhart hopes the initial welcome will not fade too quickly. “Currently we are under the umbrella of, ‘OK, let’s just get them out, they’ve done a lot to help us’,” she says. “But I’m concerned that as time goes on people will forget who these people are . . . particularly after they have been here for a while.”

Video: John Major: leaving Afghanistan ‘morally incomprehensible’

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