Refugee Resettlement Lessons From the 1980s

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Smiling Vietnamese refugee family
A Vietnamese family resettled in the United States through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service office in Hong Kong.

Imagine: the unfamiliar streets, mixed scents of street vendors and rotting sewage, and the overwhelming muggy heat of Hong Kong in 1979. In that context, Dan Larsen spent long days visiting former prisoner of war camps to interview hundreds of refugees fleeing Vietnam. In the decades since, the United States refugee resettlement program has changed, but the number of people displaced from their homes worldwide has grown to 59.5 million and the need for people to welcome them remains.

Thinking back to those days, Dan asks, “Know what it boils down to? This is a people to people business.”

Dan Larsen began working at LIRS in 1978 as Sponsorship Procurer, contacting with churches across the country to find hosts for Vietnamese refugee families. He and LIRS staff met refugees and worked with government agencies to allow families to leave the squalid camps and start new lives in the United States. Just a year later, he was off to Hong Kong when LIRS asked him to help open an office there through a State Department contract.

Vietnamese refugee family watching TV
A Vietnamese refugee family watching TV in their new home.

Both Americans and people from Hong Kong worked from the office, visiting shabby camps and conducting interviews in the muggy heat. They moved from the U.S. Embassy to other offices as the team grew. Dan says of his team, “we considered ourselves a family,” all throughout the growth and hard work.

refugees with Lutheran sponsors
A refugee family welcomed by Lutheran sponsors.

In those years, pushback against the efforts to resettle came from various directions. Many congregations were simply unaware of the situation refugees were fleeing, others were split over whether to sponsor refugees or not. Financial concerns and time limits kept some from supporting refugee families.

Refugees with Christ Lutheran Church
Refugees sponsored by Christ Lutheran Church of Belmont, MA.

However, Dan observed that helping refugees could “actually strengthen congregations.” In some churches, a small group of committed members served as an example and spurred others to join in welcoming refugee families.

Refugee orientation session
Poster reads, “LIRS ~ Welcome one and all! God bless our time together.”

Despite the challenges of the work, Dan says his time in Hong Kong was the “best job I have ever had in my life – and that’s saying something!” In 1986, he left to work in the U.S. State Department, where he worked for 30 years until his recent retirement.

Refugee family kitchen
A refugee family in their new kitchen in the United States.

Thinking back to years working on the front lines and in crowded offices, Dan remembers how things get rough and budgets get tight. To those working to welcome newcomers today, he says, “Keep it up, it’s not just a job, it’s much more than that – it’s a calling.”

LIRS staff group photo
The LIRS staff in Hong Kong who worked to interview and resettle Vietnamese refugees.

Please join us on the front lines of welcoming and donate at LIRS.org/supportsyria to support our current work with Syrian refugees.

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