The Good Governor by Mathew Walsh

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Among the tens of thousands of refugees who needed resettling after the fall of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, were the members of the Tai Dam people, also known as “Black Tai” because of the color of their clothing. Originally from northwestern (North) Vietnam and Laos, the Black Tai had their own language and system of writing.

During the French War the majority of Tai Dam sided with the Viet Minh, though some fought with the French against the insurgents. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu the Tai Dam who fought with the French fled to Laos. By the mid-1950s most had secured work as domestics, bureaucrats, and soldiers. In April 1975, Tai Dam and other ethnic groups who had worked with the French or Americans feared for their safety and streamed into Thailand looking for sanctuary.

A campaign to bring them to this country began in the summer of 1975; letters were written to thirty U.S. governors seeking help. Only Iowa’s Republican Gov. Robert D. Ray agreed to resettle the Tai Dam in his state. Today more Tai Dam live in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia. AThere have been expected (and unexpected) adjustment problems on all sides.

Matthew R. Walsh’s The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa (McFarland, 244 pp., $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) includes interviews with dozens of refugees and resettlement officials who paint a picture of struggle and resistance, but also of hope and promise.

Ray was alone in his compassion among sitting governors in his efforts to welcome a group whose 12th century lifestyle was bound to conflict with 20th century America. He was determined to build a workable program that would integrate the two cultures in a way that preserved both without diminishing either.

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Tai Dam women

Ray also was involved with Cambodian refugees after he and a delegation of governors visited Tai Dam and Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in 1979.  While there he watched as men, women, and children died for lack of food and medicine.

Working with Iowa SHARES—a program that brings people together in response to humanitarian needs without respect to ideology, ethnicity, faith traditions, or other ism’s and ology’s—the needs of Cambodian refugees were also met.

As we have witnessed over the generations, our rich national fabric is strengthened and enriched by the frequent incorporation of those fleeing oppression and hate and those looking for better opportunities for their families. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Tai Dam of Iowa are no different thanks to a caring army of volunteers aided by government and non-governmental agencies moved to action by Robert D. Ray, a United States Army veteran who served as Iowa’s Governor from 1969-83.

That is the uplifting story told in his worthy book.

—Jim Doyle

 

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