Op-Ed: Houston’s resilient refugees can be a ‘been there, done that’ resource for Harvey survivors

Children play in the courtyard of the Thai Xuan Village in Houston, a Vietnamese village created for war refugees.
(Los Angeles Times)

HOUSTON — “Do you think we can get pho?” my daughter asked. Lucky to escape Harvey unscathed, we were venturing out for the first time since the deluge hit Texas. There in our favorite noodle shop, fragrant with fish sauce and basil, it was possible to imagine a Houston untouched by disaster.

But even before Hurricane Harvey, that would have been an illusion. Disaster is what brought thousands of Houstonians here in the first place. This is a city of survivors.

Houston is by now well known as the country’s most diverse city. But it is more than an immigrant hub; it’s America’s No. 1 magnet for refugees. And for anyone rocked by Harvey’s life-upending losses, those refugees and their experiences can be a monumental resource. Many are facing the flood’s ravages alongside their neighbors right now, but they are distinct because every refugee lost everything once before. And then they rebuilt.

After 20 years reporting and living in my adopted city, I’ve come to feel awe at its once-displaced population. Since the 1970s, more than 70,000 refugees from 78 countries have settled in Houston, all fleeing versions of the chaos unleashed by Harvey. Most lost status, work and community, along with the possessions, snapshots and love letters that tell our life stories.


Many are facing the flood’s ravages alongside their neighbors right now, but they are distinct because every refugee lost everything once before.

They may not fit the profile you expect. In recent years, they’ve been arriving from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba. During the 1980s, they poured into the city to escape death squads and guerrilla war in El Salvador and Guatemala. And in the 1970s, in the biggest influx of displaced persons in its history, Houston became home to tens of thousands of Vietnamese.

What, I wondered over my Vietnamese coffee, might they tell their fellow Houstonians right now? Mechelle Tran, the pho restaurant’s 37-year-old owner, had an immediate answer. “I came here when I was 5. I have trauma amnesia, but I grew up hearing the stories,” she said. After weeks at sea, in nights so dark that waves, sky and rain were one sheet of blackness, the family landed in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines. “There were a lot of parallels to Houston right now,” Tran told me. “A bottle of fish sauce was like liquid gold, because all you had were processed packaged foods. Nothing real.” Living in chronic uncertainty, sleeping on cots, her parents had zero control of their future, not just for months, but for years, until a church linked them to a host family in Houston.

Damaging as it was, the displacement changed her for the better, Tran believes. For one thing, because Houston’s community helped them start over, she and her peers are almost fanatical about community service. In addition to a work phone, she totes a separate cell for constant charity work. Last week, when her restaurant had no more food to give, Tran orchestrated a T-shirt drive for drenched Houston Police Department officers.


Seeing her parents’ struggle to protect her also forged an iron resolve to honor their efforts. “You had no choice, no options, no falling back,” Tran said. “It’s grit. The kids whose parents have lost everything in the flood will see their parents rebuilding. They will have that little bit in them that says, ‘I saw Mom and Dad do this.’”

Flood survivors may also find surprising strength in seeing themselves as one striving community. Benito Juarez, who oversees immigrant affairs for the city, told me that the Latino, South Asian, African, and other refugees who settled here make it a point to band together.

“A sense of solidarity is built into their situation,” Juarez said. In most cases, the first group to arrive guides later groups through their new way of life, and helps newcomers find work and housing.

For Harvey’s flood survivors, that could translate to those recovering fastest sharing services and emotional help with the hardest hit.


Taking action, especially on behalf of someone else, is a lifeline, Yani Keo, a well-known Cambodian refugee leader, believes. Keo lost more than 60 family members to the genocidal rule of Pol Pot.

Doing, Keo told me a few years ago, means surviving. So she has pushed even the most dazed newcomers to volunteer, once prodding a reluctant Afghan refugee to the airport so he could welcome an even more recent arrival.

Pitching in for others, Keo said, gives an uprooted life meaning again. Research backs this up. Post-traumatic growth, the subject of a flourishing academic field, suggests that in some circumstances, trauma builds strength. It’s not always the case, but taking action, and seeing a model of someone else’s resilience, make positive change more likely.


As I sipped the last of my Vietnamese coffee, Mechelle Tran added one more thing. No one chooses to be wrenched from home, she said. But flood survivors now overwhelmed by their future may have more power than they realize.

“The minute your foot touched that boat or canoe, you made a decision,” Tran said. “You made the decision to fight.”

Claudia Kolker is the associate director of intellectual capital at Rice Business School and author of “The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness, and Hope.”

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