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The writer is a contributing columnist for FT.
Almost half a century ago, Aryn Lockhart fled Vietnam as part of Baby lift operation, in which she and 2,000 other Vietnamese orphans were flown in for adoption in the US just weeks before Saigon fell in the humiliating US military defeat of the Vietnam War.
As the United States watched images of desperate Afghans fleeing their homeland after another American war, Lockhart, 47, recalled that old trauma. “When I saw the photos of the refugees crammed into American planes, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that looks exactly like the photos from Operation Babylift,’ except they’re not all babies,” he tells me over the phone. .
She notes that the Saigon airlift was marred by the tragedy, as was the Afghan evacuation, which was hit by a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 US military men and women and more than 170 civilians. The inaugural Operation Babylift flight crashed and killed 138 people, including 78 children. Lockhart, co-author of Operation Babylift: mission accomplished, a memory of hope and healing, says her American adoptive parents told her that she was one of the survivors.
In authorizing the airlift, former US President Gerald Ford called it “the least we can do.” Now, Americans are preparing to find out what is “the least we can do” for refugees from another US foreign war.
American public opinion strongly supports the evacuation and relocation of Afghans with American connections, or those in danger from the Taliban, and that support crosses partisan lines, says Dina Smeltz, senior public opinion and foreign policy researcher at the Council on Global Affairs. from Chicago.
Eight out of ten Americans (81 percent) favor the Afghan evacuation and relocation who provided support to U.S. and allied forces, including 86 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of Republicans, and 77 percent of independents, according to a Chicago Council-IPSOS poll Aug. 23-26 .
That does not mean that there will not be an anti-immigrant backlash later on. At Fort McCoy, a US Army base in rural Wisconsin, up to 13,000 Afghan refugees are expected. But Doug Rogalla, chairman of the Monroe County Republican Party and a former US serviceman, says, “I think the United States has an obligation to help the Afghans who helped us, but we have a greater obligation to American citizens. I’m not sure the refugees are being properly screened. ”
Rogalla makes clear that for Republicans in this changing state, with President Joe Biden winning by less than 1 percent of the vote, not all immigrants are the same. “The problem with these refugees is much less than with those who cross the southern border,” he says, adding: “immigration is not a problem with Republicans, illegal immigration is.”
Cleveland is another Midwestern city waiting for 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 I welcome those people here?’ But my mom spoke a language. it was not english. first, [and ] I grew up in a community that is largely immigrant, ”he says, adding that one of the first offers of help during the current crisis came from former Vietnamese refugees.
Cimperman believes that resettlement of migrants is “muscle memory for Cleveland,” originally resolved largely by immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. “Welcoming refugees helps offset our demographic loss and we have four jobs available for every person who is willing to fill them.”
But Arrey Obenson, president of the St Louis International Institute, who himself immigrated from Cameroon more than 20 years ago, says the cultural battle to assimilate into the United States will be just as tough for Afghan refugees as it is for those who came before. “The United States is the envy of the world, but when you get here you realize how complicated it is,” he says.
Lockhart hopes the initial welcome doesn’t fade too quickly. “We are currently under the umbrella of ‘OK, let’s just get them out, they’ve done a lot to help us,’” he says. “But I am concerned that as time goes on people will forget who these people are. . . particularly after being here for a while. “