'He was a hero in our eyes': Southeast Asian refugees who came to Iowa mourn former Gov. Robert Ray
Friday's funeral for former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray won’t be the first time Nu Huynh has cried over him.
The first time came about 20 years ago, when Huynh thanked him in person for saving her family.
She was a young woman attending an award ceremony for the former governor, who was being honored in Des Moines for opening Iowa’s doors to thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia.
After the ceremony, Huynh squeezed to the front of the crowd so she could tell Ray in person how much he meant to her.
“When I had the chance to meet him and to actually shake his hand, I completely lost it,” she recalled.
Her eyes teared up again Monday as she recounted her embarrassment at sobbing in the presence of the mild-mannered politician, who died Sunday at age 89.
Huynh, now 43, is executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance. She and her family were part of the “boat people” exodus from Vietnam after communists gained control of the country in 1975 and terrorized anyone who had cooperated with Americans.
Her family was forced to flee because her father had been part of the South Vietnamese military. They left everything behind in Vietnam except for gold to pay smugglers who would take them on a harrowing journey by boat hundreds of miles to Malaysia.
From there, they had the fortune to receive permission to move to Iowa in 1979. Huynh was 4 when they stepped off the plane in Des Moines, headed for Ottumwa.
Iowa wrapped its arms around the family, including her parents, two brothers, a sister — and another sister who was born shortly after they arrived here.
Volunteers and government officials — under orders from the governor — helped refugees find housing, jobs, healthcare and education.
Huynh has read stories about how Ray, a Republican, faced down skeptics when he called for Iowa to welcome people such as her to the mostly white state. She has read about how he stood firm.
"Sometimes one individual does truly make a difference,” she said. “He was a hero in our eyes because he had the courage and the commitment to do what he felt was truly honorable, and the right thing to do to save thousands of lives.”
Ray testified before Congress in 1979 about the need to help rescue refugees like Huynh’s family.
“Human lives are at stake. Already hundreds, if not thousands — the majority women and children — have perished at sea,” he testified. “Our response to this problem will to a large degree determine whether more lives are lost or saved.”
The governor noted that his state had volunteered in 1975 to take more than 1,000 members of a distinct group of Southeast Asian people known as the Tai Dam, who had lived in Vietnam but fled to Laos to escape the communists.
The Tai Dam were without a country, and they wanted to stay together. Ray agreed to help them do so.
That way, he said, they could keep their cultural identity and support each other as they adjusted to America.
“I am happy to report to you that both of those goals were achieved and the resettlement of the Tai Dam has been beyond expectation,” Ray told members of Congress. “These people have become productive, contributing members of our society, paying taxes and earning their own way. … There has been little need for welfare assistance and all seeking work are gainfully employed.”
Tom Baccam’s family was among the Tai Dam who came to Iowa in the mid-1970s. On Monday, he described Ray as their “godfather.”
“He’s the one who accepted us, who welcomed us to this country,” Baccam said.
Baccam, now 59, was 17 when he arrived in Iowa with his parents, grandparents and five siblings.
They were taken to the western Iowa town of Denison, where sponsors were ready to help them. The teenager had expected all of America to look like New York City, but he and his family adapted quickly to small-town life.
Within two weeks, his father had found work as a printer, and the family was on its way.
Like many young refugees, Baccam was serious about education. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree, and he now owns a home-care agency specializing in helping elderly members of the Asian community.
He raised his family in Des Moines and has been active in Democratic politics. On Monday, he showed off a set of photos of himself with many of his favorite politicians: Democrats Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Harkin, Tom Vilsack and Leonard Boswell — plus Republican Bob Ray.
The Tai Dam people will never forget that Ray was the sole governor who volunteered to take them all, Baccam said.
“We are a nuclear family, here together. We don’t want to be apart. We are a small group,” he said. “This was the only place that would accept people in a group. Gov. Ray had a good heart, compassion, open arms to our people. That’s why we came to Iowa.”
Roughly 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees came to Iowa because of Ray’s actions. Many of them have thrived, and they’ve repeatedly honored him.
An ornate Asian garden in downtown Des Moines is named after him, as is the Tai Dam’s welcome center on the city’s north side.
Huynh, the Iowa Asian Alliance director, said the refugees weren’t the only ones who benefited from Ray’s vision and kindness. The countless Iowans who followed his instruction to help them also grew, she said.
“That really set the stage and the foundation for what Iowa is known to be now: A state that is open and welcoming to all refugees and immigrants in terms of doing the right thing,” she said.
Huynh met with Ray several times after the moment when she shook his hand and began sobbing. She learned he had a quick wit and a way of asking questions that put people at ease.
But he didn’t boast about himself or his accomplishments, she said.
How long will former refugees and their families be talking about Ray?
“Oh gosh, forever? I hope so,” Huynh said, smiling. “Actually, I know so.”
Books and articles have been written about him. Videos have been made and memorials constructed.
Parents and grandparents will keep telling his story, she said, “to ensure that generations and generations that come after this will know about this former governor in Iowa and the amazing human being that he was and what he stood for.”