You can only imagine how daunting it was for the 200 Vietnamese Montagnards to get off that plane at the Piedmont Triad Airport 35 years ago.
“You could tell they were nervous. They were excited and…this was a new land. All these cameras were around. I can’t imagine what was going through their mind,” said former WGHP-TV producer and photographer David Weatherly.
Weatherly, along with former WGHP-TV news director and, at that time, reporter Scott Libin did a documentary on the people who referred to themselves as Dega but had been dubbed Montagnards – French for Mountain People – centuries ago when the French first colonized southeast Asia.
The Montagnard-Dega fought alongside American special forces throughout the Vietnam War, but many of them were left behind when the U.S. pulled out its troops in 1973. After thirteen years of being hunted down and often killed by the communist Viet Cong who took over after America left, Y Siu Hlong and other Montagnard-Dega had an opportunity to come to America for a fresh start.
“I just feel very grateful for the sacrifices that my dad has made,” said Cassandra Hlong, Y Siu’s daughter who was born in America a few years after Y Siu arrived.
Y Siu and the other Montagnards were grateful for the opportunity, but assimilation wasn’t easy.
“These folks lived in jungles all their lives. No running water. No modern conveniences,” Weatherly said. “Most of their lives, they spent fleeing from the Vietnamese, trying to survive.”
They not only survive but thrived, which is something Cassandra Hlong is still amazed by as she turns thirty.
“Coming to America and starting a new life…at thirty…and not just the languages but survival,” she said. “[My dad] goes above and beyond and becomes a community presence and earns a doctorate degree.”
Y Siu Hlong recently retired after thirty years as the executive director of the Montagnard-Dega Association, helping countless others who came with and after him.
The people he has helped now want to return the favor by starting a legacy fund in his honor to help as many people as possible.
It was all to help them become Americans and to remember who they are at heart.
“This our country right now,” Y Siu said. “I want all the young Montagnard people to learn that: love our people. Love our country. and don’t forget the reason why we come here.”
They came here to avoid death at the hands of the communist Viet Cong, Y Siu insists.
And Weatherly says there is a lesson in their story for all of us.
“We should always…help the people who help us. And if we don’t, what does that say about us?” Weatherly said.
See more of the Montagnard-Dega story in this edition of the Buckley Report.