We were born in countries an ocean away: Vinh in Vietnam and Leisle in Korea. We’re now Americans who call Colorado Springs home. Our story has been possible because of the kind strangers who helped us at every turning point. Because of our journey, we believe that America’s strength does not lie in our military might or economic power. Our country’s greatest strength lies in the compassionate hearts of Americans. Over the past months, we have witnessed incredible kindness and generosity in our own community as Colorado Springs prepared to welcome its new Afghan neighbors.
Since 2001, approximately 250,000 nationals in Afghanistan have been affiliated with U.S. operations. They worked alongside members of our community who served as soldiers, contractors, and volunteers. Thus, when images of their desperate evacuation filled our screens, many in Colorado Springs began to ask, “How can I help?”
Afghan Refugees in Our Community
Last September, Governor Jared Polis’ office announced that our state would accept 1,500 Afghan evacuees in the coming year. Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains is the sole resettlement agency for refugees in Colorado Springs. They expected approximately 200 Afghan evacuees to join our community starting in late 2021 through the first half of 2022. Resettling the incoming families in a short period of time entails multiple challenges, from raising funds to finding housing for arriving families.
Our country has not seen such significant refugee numbers since just after the Vietnam War. We think it could be lessons from that War that shaped our most recent response.
Lessons from Vietnam: Rewriting the Story
When a war ends or a military leaves a country, the story continues for those who served and for those who were left behind. Vietnam veterans have scars and memories that have followed them for decades.
As a Vietnam refugee, Vinh is also a product of the Vietnam War. His story did not end with the U.S. helicopter lifting off the U.S. embassy roof in April of 1975. Instead, that was when his story began. He was born in war-torn South Vietnam, where his family was persecuted, and they fled Communist oppression as one of the approximately 800,000 boat people.
For Vietnam veterans and for Vinh, the trajectory of their lives was shaped by war, but it was not defined by it. Most of us do not have the power to start or end the war, but we all have the power to rewrite our life stories.
When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, our Colorado Springs community chose to rewrite the stories for some of the Afghan evacuees. We decided that the story of the United States–Afghanistan relationship would not end with the heartbreaking images of the chaotic evacuation. Instead, the story would continue within our community. We decided to become a part of their stories and welcome them into our lives.
Our Community’s Response
Local churches, such as Sunrise United Methodist, First Presbyterian, Pulpit Rock Church, and others, stepped forward to help. Local groups of friends and neighbors also stepped in to provide support to incoming families.
For example, a community group from Peak City Church decided to sponsor an Afghan family. Most of the members have never done anything like this before. Most did not understand the Afghan culture or speak their language. They did not have all the answers, but they decided to respond anyway. They committed to serving however they could. From donations to volunteering, their story with the Afghan family is still being written today.
KOAA News 5 has been committed not only to reporting the news in our community, but also to work actively to make our community better. They partnered with us to hold an all-day fundraiser for Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains by sharing stories about American soldiers and Afghan refugees. The Gazette, Colorado Springs Magazine, KKTV, KRDO, and Fox21 have all shared stories about refugees and how our community can help. These stories brought our community together and inspired us to respond with generosity.
Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center offered its facility as a host site for the KOAA telethon fundraiser. Military spouses and veterans volunteered to answer phones, and it was a privilege to volunteer alongside these heroes. Callers gave anywhere from $5 to thousands. We had patients come into our medical practice to drop off checks. Although the amount varied, there was a common desire to help. In just a couple of weeks, we raised more than $200,000 to help Lutheran Family Services with refugee resettlement in Colorado Springs. And this dollar amount does not take into account the prayers, the words of encouragement, nonmonetary donations, and volunteers who signed up.
Seeing Ourselves in the Stories of Others
We all have life stories that have been shaped by events beyond our control. We believe people have a God-given ability to rewrite our own stories and the stories of others. That is what gives all of us hope.
What we have witnessed in our own lives and over the past months is this: When we are willing to strip away the surface differences, we see that more brings us together as human beings than tears us apart. That is what we heard repeatedly from our community.
“I can’t even imagine what I would do if I had to evacuate with my children,” said a donor who wanted to help.
“These aren’t just refugees. They are people we made promises to,” said a military veteran working to get his Afghan translator’s family to Colorado Springs.
When our own families arrived in this country, we were unfamiliar with the customs. Neither of us spoke English when we started school. It was the kindness of our neighbors, teachers, and churches that helped make this country home. We were the recipients of American generosity, and that spirit lives in our community. These past months have made us proud to call Colorado Springs home.
Love is not just a feeling. Love is a verb. It is the most powerful action that humans can take. It is natural to feel pain or sorrow for others, but inaction leads only to a sense of helplessness. When we find the courage to step into the stories of others and actively love them, we become empowered. In shaping the life stories of others, we ourselves become changed for the better.
Dr. Vinh Chung is a skin cancer surgeon and cofounder of Vanguard Skin Specialists. Leisle Chung is CEO and cofounder of Vanguard Skin Specialists.