A reminder of San Diego’s refugee resettlement in a time of terror
By Anna Daniels
Why does City Heights physically look the way it does and why does it have such distinctive demographics? The case can be made that City Heights has been shaped both by design–the adoption of the Mid-City Plan in 1965– and by happenstance in the form of the fall of Saigon one decade later.
The Mid-City Plan provided a blueprint of sorts for stimulating business and commercial growth that is reflected in the built environment. The fall of Saigon and the subsequent resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in City Heights also became a blueprint of sorts for influencing the ever changing demographics of the individuals who would move within the built environment.
There are about 75,000 people in City Heights and 44% of the residents are foreign born, representing over sixty different countries. The most obvious reflections of this are in the diversity of ethnic restaurants here and the signage over local businesses and on church marquees. It is also reflected in the clothes people wear and the languages heard in the streets. City Heights is clearly a community of immigrants and it is nothing like the cloying sentimentality of the popular Disneyland ride.
Within this community of immigrants is a significant subset–refugees. The United Nations Refugee Agency describes refugees as “people whose lives have been torn apart when violence arrives on their doorstep or when they are persecuted for their religious or political beliefs. Refugees are driven from their homes and communities by factors outside their control. It happens so fast. Quite literally, refugees are people running for their lives.”
The United States provides resettlement programs to refugees fleeing oppression and war. The influx of Vietnamese, Laotians, Hmong, Thai and Cambodians into U.S. cities after the Viet Nam war created metropolitan resettlement centers that would continue to function in the same capacity with other refugee populations in subsequent years. San Diego is one of these resettlement centers. San Diego’s International Rescue Committee (IRC) which is located in City Heights, plays a pivotal role in the initial placement of refugees in San Diego.
City Heights’ refugee population is a lesson in world history and about the displacement of human beings by wars and oppression abroad. Since the wave of Southeast Asian refugees in the 70’s, City Heights has become home to Eastern Europeans fleeing communism and Ethiopians fleeing famine and civil war in the 80’s. Refugees made their way here when guerrilla wars were waged against military juntas in Central and South America. Then the Balkans fell apart, Yugoslavia dissolved into bloodshed and ethnic Albanians arrived in City Heights. Civil conflicts in the 90’s unleashed a stream of refugees from Somalia, the Sudan and Liberia.
The 2000’s brought Iraqi and Iranian refugees. The most recent refugee groups being resettled here are from Burma (Myanmar). The UN estimates that 6.5 million people have been displaced in Syria. There are 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. A significant number of these refugees will undoubtedly be resettled in the United States. Some of them will undoubtedly be resettled in City Heights.
The horrors and carnage these refugees have experienced lie mostly hidden from the awareness of those outside of the specific ethnic communities. These refugees come here to make new lives for themselves and must immediately immerse themselves in learning a new language and new customs and in finding employment and housing.
Over time, their stories are revealed in documentaries and books such as Cambodian Doughnut Dreams, The Lost Boys of Sudan, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Over the course of living almost three decades in City Heights, I have had few direct conversations with immigrant and refugee neighbors about the wars they left behind. I have never asked them about it and it’s unclear whether they interpret this as indifference to the topic or with a sense of relief.
Yet there are subtle indications of the circumstances people left behind. It has been a challenge convincing Southeast Asian refugees that it is safe for them to call the police or reveal their real name to authority figures here. The police department’s Multicultural Storefront in City Heights specifically provides outreach and services to the Southeast Asian and East African communities for those reasons.
Flags representing the different homelands of City Heights residents were strung along University Avenue one year. It was not obvious to the organizers that the official Laotian flag they had used was unacceptable to the Laotians here who had fled what had became a communist country. The flag was immediately taken down and replaced.
“One day I woke up and all the parrots had been killed.” He looked me directly in the eyes and asked “Why would someone do that?”
Hmong veterans of the 15 year long CIA sponsored secret war in Laos during the Viet Nam War have been denied burial in U.S. veterans cemeteries. General Vang Pao, a revered Hmong leader who died in 2011, was denied burial at Arlington Cemetery because he did not directly serve in the American military. This rebuke to the Hmong community resulted in a push for legislation to correct this lack of official recognition. Election year politics derailed those legislative efforts.
Decades ago I hired a neighborhood teenager to help with some yard work. Alex (name changed) opened up a bit to me when I asked what life was like where he grew up in rural Guatemala. His face lit up as he talked about his family’s small farm and about the parrots his family raised. He suddenly grew quiet and very still. “One day I woke up and all the parrots had been killed.” He looked me directly in the eyes and asked “Why would someone do that?”
I don’t think he really expected an answer. He didn’t expect anything that could make sense of the gratuitous violence that snuffed out the lives of those beautiful birds as it had snuffed out the lives of thousands of Guatemalans.
This past Sunday My Beloved and I drove past the City Heights Adult Education Center and the City Heights Library where a large group was assembled waiting for the library to open.
There were African women with head scarves and boys holding skateboards. I could hear disconnected words in Spanish. “Stop the car” I blurted out. “Look!” I grabbed the camera and positioned myself on the palm tree lined traffic island.
Rich downloaded the pictures of buses and cars passing by, the pictures of street lights and street signs and stores and flowering trees. For a moment I could imagine how City Heights might appear to someone who arrived here with little more than the clothes on her back or hope in his heart.
“Don’t you see? I asked. City Heights is an improbable, outrageous example to point to when imagining what peace looks like, but there it was– so ordinary. So beautiful.
It is not war.