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Refugee Resilience

The impact of art in Southeast Asian communities

Despite the documented desperate conditions of the camp, this painting provides evidence of the arts as a strategy of perseverance for refugees; and now as documentation of their moments of joy and community building.

A painting of four women, playing music and socializing.

The above painting by artist Tang Son in 1992 depicts musicians performing in the notorious Hong Kong Whitehead Detention center, a refugee camp that erupted numerous times in protest and violence during the 1990s. Credit: Son Tang, artist, courtesy of the UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.

Authored by activists, historians, and memory keepers from Asian-heritage communities, this series documents key moments of past injustice and bravery—revealing connections to the present-day and celebrating movements for change. Read all 4 stories in A History of Resilience here.

My name is Thuy Vo Dang (twee voh dang). I live and work on the unceded ancestral territories of the Acjachemen and Tongva nations, also known as Orange County, California. Land that is stolen is not a homeland I can claim; yet my homeland no longer exists. I am a Vietnamese-American educator, oral historian, mother, arts advocate, and curator of histories. I am also a refugee from the Vietnam War. My grit and resilience are forged from the embers of a South Vietnam no longer on the map, a forced migration across the ocean, and decades of making my way in an America that has not known how to pronounce my name.

Through lived experience and decades of research, one thing has become clear to me: there is much we can learn from the strategies refugee communities enact to build up their grit and resilience. One visible way is through the arts, a means of storytelling that has the potential to prompt collective healing and intergenerational dialogue. For refugees, art can help represent their plights, advocate for their humanity in the eyes of the world, and even allow for reconciliation with their trauma-filled pasts.

Writer Khaled Hosseini writes that, “Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.” The archives I manage in Southern California contain historical materials related to the unprecedented exodus of refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and ‘80s. Cambodians who escaped the Killing Fields, Hmong people recruited to fight in the U.S.’ “Secret War,” Laotians displaced by a decade of U.S. aerial bombings of their homes, and then there’s “my people.” Vietnamese have a long history of resisting the foreign occupation of the Chinese, the French, and then the US. Our collective grit and resilience are forged through centuries of resistance to outside rule and a strong desire to live free.

Rather than centering the perspectives of Americans as saviors of Southeast Asian refugees, these archives I oversee reveal the felt experiences of refugees—their struggles, hopes, and dreams. Through collecting and preserving these Southeast Asian refugee narratives, we may begin to challenge how history has often been told from the perspective of “winners.” Our collection of refugee artwork includes drawings by children and adults enrolled in classes meant to help them pass the time in camp. Then there were the refugee artists in the mix who created beautiful works that tell the story of their lives in limbo and their dreams of freedom beyond the camps. During the 1980s and ‘90s, some of this artwork was displayed in the West to raise awareness about the tragedies borne by the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their homelands.

Recently, I have reflected on how this history, told through items such as refugee artwork, might be summoned to help us understand the human costs of war. Death and destruction are often viewed as the quantifiable and concrete losses. There is also the toll that reaches deeper into the depths of our souls and extends across time, changing the shape of relationships generations after war officially ends. How do we account for the fractured and haunted lives of those who have escaped and survived war? Perhaps art can be a means of recounting, along with so much more.

In the popular imagination, the word “Vietnam” has been synonymous with “war” since the decades of American involvement. The Vietnam War was the first televised and, up until then, the most divisive war since the Civil War for the American nation. By now there are over two million Vietnamese in the United States and over 200,000 in Canada, largely as a result of that era. For these communities, “Vietnam is not a war.” And this is perhaps best expressed in a poem by le thi diem thuy called “Shrapnel Shards on Blue Water.” The poem ends with an incantation, prompting us to think about my people beyond the violence wrought on our land:

let people know

VIETNAM IS NOT A WAR

but a piece

of

us,

sister

and

we are

so much

more

Art in Southeast Asian diasporas around the world, whether visual art, performing art, poetry, and more, can build a bridge between these communities and the public while promoting the healing that is ever so necessary for us to survive. We present our stories in their complexities; we harness our refugeehood to push humanity towards peace. Art gives form to imagination. And if we can imagine peace, we can work towards it.

About the Author

Thuy Vo Dang (she/her/hers) is Curator for the Southeast Asian Archive and Research Librarian for Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She has a Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from UC San Diego, with expertise on Southeast Asian diaspora, oral history, ethnography, and community archives. She is co-author of the books, A People’s Guide to Orange County (2022), an alternative history and tour guide of Orange County that documents sites of oppression, resistance, and transformation, and Vietnamese in Orange County (2015), a visual history of the largest Vietnamese diaspora. Thuy serves on the board of directors for Arts OC and the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.