One of a Kind: The Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services
The United States had been involved in Vietnam for many years. When South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese communists in April 1975, about 130,000 South Vietnamese scrambled to get out of the country. Many of them had helped the Americans during the war and were in danger. As a result, President Gerald R. Ford asked American governors to help the Vietnamese refugees. Iowa’s governor, Robert D. Ray, responded to the president’s request. Under Ray’s leadership a unique agency was formed. This agency would change its name several times, but it would ultimately be the Bureau of Refugee Services.
Vietnam and Laos Fall to Communism
The takeover by communist governments in both Vietnam and neighboring Laos in 1975 impacted many people. The Tai Dam—a distinct ethnic group unique in their language, religion, and culture—had lived in northwestern Vietnam for centuries. In 1954 war in their homeland had forced many Tai Dam to flee to Laos. Again in 1975 they were forced to leave their homes in Laos. This time they escaped to Thailand.
The Governor's Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement is Formed
In July 1975 President Gerald Ford wrote every state governor asking them to do all they could to help find new homes for the Southeast Asian refugees. Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray responded to this request and in that same month started the Governor's Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement.
The governor stressed that the success of the resettlement program would rely on resources to help the refugees being channeled through the state’s employment service rather than the welfare department. Ray believed that helping the refugees find jobs, rather than placing them in welfare programs, would help preserve the refugees’ strong work ethic, as well as increase Iowan’s support for the refugee program.
These people, if I understood correctly, were good working people, they were good moral people, they were good family people. And I didn’t want to spoil that. And I think if you get on welfare it’s very easy to have that change your lifestyle. And I didn’t want that to happen.
--Former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray
Iowa and the Tai Dam
That same summer Governor Ray, along with many state governors, received a request from Arthur Crisfield. Crisfield, a former U.S. government employee working in Laos, had worked with the Tai Dam people and wanted to help them settle in new homes. Governor Ray wanted to help by bringing some Tai Dam to Iowa. However, there was a problem. Governor Ray later reflected:
The State Department had a policy that refugees could not be relocated in a group in any one community and there was logic to that because, you know, you can’t just dump a lot of people in a community ... So I understood that. But I thought there was a good reason for the exception. And so I worked with the State Department and the White House. And I remember making the trip to talk to Henry Kissinger and then to Gerry Ford. And in the final analysis, they agreed and they made the exception. And so we were able to invite the Tai Dam to come to Iowa.
In late October 1975 the first of these new Iowans arrived in Des Moines.
In September of 1977 the Governor's Task Force was reorganized and renamed the Iowa Refugee Service Center (IRSC).
Iowa Helps “The Boat People”
In 1979 the world was again reminded of the plight of Southeast Asian refugees—in this case using boats to flee their homes—when “CBS Reports With Ed Bradley: The Boat People” aired in January. The documentary showed the plight of refugees escaping Vietnam in small boats on open seas and then being held in overcrowded camps in Malaysia. Governor Ray was deeply moved by the program and sent a letter to President Carter pledging Iowa's commitment to receive 1,500 more refugees during the next year.
The White House knew of our interest and our leadership. And we were pressing them to help internationally because the whole world needed to be a part of this, not just Iowa or just the United States.
--Former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray
Iowa was once again able to provide refuge for Southeast Asian refugees.
Assistance Expands to Eastern Europe and Africa
In the mid-1980s IRSC became part of the Iowa Department of Human Services and was named the Bureau of Refugee Programs, later to become the Bureau of Refugee Services.
In February 1987 the Bureau began resettling refugees from Eastern Europe. Throughout 1987 dozens of refugee families from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary resettled in Iowa.
In 1993 the Bureau was approved by the U.S. Department of State as a Bosnian resettlement agency. Des Moines was selected as a “cluster site” for the Bosnian refugees. Being a cluster site meant that Des Moines would be able to take numerous people and families. In February the first three families were resettled in Iowa by the Bureau. More were to follow. By 2005 an estimated 6,532 Bosnian refugees had arrived in Iowa.
In June 1995 the Bureau began providing direct bilingual and ethnic-specific services for Sudanese refugees who had resettled or migrated to Iowa. Iowa had become the largest resettlement site for the Sudanese in the country. By 2005 more than 1,400 Sudanese refugees had arrived in Iowa.
Still One of a Kind
As of 2007 the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services is the only unit run by a state government that is certified as a resettlement agency by the US State Department. It continues to offer hope for a better life to refugees worldwide.