Nevada student nationally competes with what she learned about Iowa, family's history helping refugees

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

A Nevada student's project that tied together the work of an Iowa governor and her own family to welcome refugees at the end of the Vietnam War is going to the national level of a history competition.

Nevada Middle School eighth grader Lillian Frideres, 14, created a website on "Vietnamese Refugees in Iowa: Ray’s Humanitarian and Controversial Relocation." 

Frideres' project was one of 18 — two from each of nine categories, according to a news release from Nevada schools — selected at state level competition to advance to National History Day's virtual contest to be held June 12-18.

"It was a personal connection, and it was important to my family, so I wanted to learn more about it," Frideres said.

More:Ames community members have cautious hope three months into war in Ukraine, look to directly aid

'I did it because my grandparents sheltered the Vietnamese when they came.'

In 1975, North Vietnamese forces took control of Saigon, capital of the American-supported South Vietnam — marking the end of a decades-long civil war between Communist north and anti-Communist south that had included the deaths of more than 58,000 American military members in deeply divisive U.S. involvement and millions of people in Vietnam on both sides, combatants and civilians.

The fall of Saigon triggered an exodus of refugees from Vietnam, and President Gerald Ford appealed to governors for help with resettlement by offering $500 to assist with the costs for each refugee. Only Iowa Gov. Robert Ray responded.

Ray, a Republican, again welcomed refugees from Southeast Asia to Iowa in 1979, and not without controversy. A September 1979 Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed 51 percent opposed resettling more refugees.

Ray, who died in 2018 — and who had fought to keep together a close-knit Vietnamese ethnic group and later went on to personally visit refugee camps in Thailand with other governors — told Iowa Public Television for a documentary on refugee resettlement in Iowa that, "I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, 'Let those people die.'"

More:'He was a hero in our eyes': Southeast Asian refugees who came to Iowa mourn former Gov. Robert Ray

Frideres' project is about Ray's efforts and advocacy, as well as debate among Iowans, but she also learned a lot about her own family's efforts.

"I did it because my grandparents sheltered the Vietnamese when they came," she said.

Her grandparents in Iowa sponsored 27 people, including a family of four in 1975 and then two more families a couple years later.

"I never really talked to them before about that," Frideres said, and she learned a lot more about each family and each person her family sponsored.

She wants to share her project with the people she interviewed and show it to adults in her family so they know more about it. 

More:Des Moines volunteer group alleges resettlement agencies aren't meeting Afghan refugees' needs

"I put lots of time into it. So it felt good to see my hard work paid off," she said of being selected to compete in National History Day's national contest — after her first time entering.

Frideres is the only student from the Nevada, Ames, Ballard, Gilbert or Roland-Story districts competing at nationals, according to Hanna Howard, National History Day coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Iowa will be represented at nationals this year by 70 students with 36 projects, according to Kim Fortney, deputy director of National History Day.

Lillian Frideres, a Nevada Middle School eighth grader, stands besides her National History Day project, a website on Vietnamese refugee resettlement in Iowa, that she will be competing with at the national level of the contest.

Project categories include exhibits, documentaries, papers and performances, in addition to websites. The categories are further divided by middle and high school levels, and whether entered by individual students or groups of students.

Frideres said the lessons she learned from doing her project continue to apply in the present — as refugees arrive or are expected to arrive in Iowa from nations including Afghanistan and Ukraine. 

She learned about how people provided medical care, food to families who were malnourished, and English-teaching and translation services.

"The refugees, they face lots of challenges to come to the U.S. and so when they get here, we should help and do our part and reach out to them to try to help them restart their life," Frideres said.

More:Central Iowa is springing to action to help Afghan refugees. Here's how you can, too.

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.