Introducing 40 & Forward: Southeast Asian Americans Rooted and Rising

This year, Southeast Asian American communities from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are commemorating the 40th anniversary of our community’s history in the United States. Over the course of this year, SEARAC hopes to engage our community in this space through our “40 & Forward” campaign to explore our collective and individual experiences, the struggles we endured, and the great strides we have made as we celebrate our community’s great resilience. 

April 1975 marked the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1975, the war took the lives of over 58,000 Americans[1]  and over 1,000,000 Vietnamese[2]. Without Congressional approval, the U.S. also secretly dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years on the small country of Laos, and carpeted northern and eastern Cambodia with ordnance over the course of the war. In Cambodia, the end of the Vietnam War marked the beginning of the terror of the Khmer Rouge genocide, which killed approximately 1.7 million Cambodians – over 20% of the country’s population[3]. These crises created a mass exodus of refugees into Thailand and onto the open sea to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia. This was the largest humanitarian and refugee crises the world had seen and lasted over two decades. The Southeast Asian American communities today have emerged from deep trauma and continuing to heal from our struggles as we honor our roots and build our voices as Americans.


Despite the years of war in Southeast Asia, many Americans responded to the refugee crisis with open hearts and open arms. Presidents Ford and Carter passed executive actions to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees into the U.S., and families and congregations across the country sponsored refugees to resettle in their communities. Since 1975, over 1.3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S., approximately half of whom came before 1983. Our communities struggled in the face of post-traumatic stress disorder and poverty, but also organized to support each other through creating informal associations and cultural organizations, small businesses, as well as service organizations known as “Mutual Assistance Associations” or community-based organizations. These structures created building blocks for the new Southeast Asian American community.

Today we are a vibrant community of over 2.5 million, as new generations are born who know the U.S. as their only home but are stitching the memories and traditions of their families into new hybrid identities.  In the coming blog series, we will focus on the journey that has taken SEAAs from refugees to new Americans, and celebrate our strength and our resilience.

Next: The U.S. Humanitarian Response to the Southeast Asian Refugee Crisis

4.Office of Refugee Resettlement Report to Congress on the Refugee Resettlement (1983), Table 1.
5.Ibid; 2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security.