In 1975, 18-year-old college student Anh Vu Sawyer, her parents and her three siblings were among the 120,000 Vietnamese who fled the country after the Fall of Saigon. As a refugee, Sawyer arrived in the United States with only the clothes on her back and dreams of building a life in her new home. Now, as executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEACMA), she helps fellow immigrants and refugees do just that—and more.
Based in Worcester, Massachusetts, SEACMA supports immigrants from Southeast Asia and around the world by connecting them with resources and providing education, job training and other essential services. The organization also works to preserve and promote Southeast Asian culture in the wider Worcester community. According to Sawyer, fostering cultural heritage is essential for ensuring immigrants from anywhere thrive, even as they seek to integrate into American life.
Sawyer, who is also an author and entrepreneur, discusses her own experience as a refugee and why she believes mental health care is especially important for immigrants.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I am a former refugee. At the Fall of Saigon, my family left Vietnam alongside thousands of other Vietnamese refugees. When we left, we lost everything. When we arrived at the refugee camps—Wake Island and then Fort Chaffee, in Arkansas—we didn’t have anything with us, only the clothes on our back. I think we were there for maybe five or six months. There was no clock, no calendar. We had no idea what day it was. I had a lot of dreams about my future and what I would be doing. Me and my siblings had two things in mind: We’re going to go back to school, and we’re going to be the very best Americans we can be.
What drew you to helping other immigrants and refugees?
I never thought I would be doing this because, growing up, I was a material girl. I loved shoes and clothes. I loved dancing and parties. I always thought non-profit meant no profit, and I never thought I would do that kind of work. But I always found myself protesting for equality. I think in my heart I was drawn to do something for people who are marginalized. Now I’d never trade my job for anything.
How would you describe the immigrants and refugees you work with today? What kind of strengths do they bring to the country, and what are some of the challenges they face?
Worcester is an economically struggling city. The majority of our clients are low income folks with an English language barrier. They’re very hardworking and loyal. They respect the rules, and they really want to give back to their society.
Asian women are the most resilient people I have ever met. These women, when they come to this country, have the strength and power to provide for their family, cook meals, work two jobs, and make sure their kids are doing their homework. They’re also very much into social justice. They care for people who are treated badly. I’m encouraged to see that the new generation of young Vietnamese women who are coming here, for example, are a lot more involved in advocacy for all types of people.
What are some ways that mental health challenges particularly affect the immigrants and refugees you work with?
They have to worry a lot: if their kids will be safe when they leave the house, or whether they’ll have enough money for basic needs like housing. They worry about their future. The pandemic was so hard for our people because the majority of them work in service industries, and restaurants, nail salons and so many other things are closed.
For many of our clients, they think that going to see a mental health professional is a luxury, so they don’t do it. This can sometimes push people into behavior like addiction or alcoholism. And a lot of that passes down to the kids as well, so it creates a lot of stress—not only in the person, but in the family. Most of the time we have three generations living in one home. So when there’s a stressful situation, it’s spread out through all three generations.
For immigrants, why is keeping a connection to their cultural heritage important to their mental health?
Our heritage is a part of us. Without it, we’d be like a boat without a moor—we’d have no control of our direction or where we’re going. Our heritage is so important for our mental health because the pride that we have from it gives us this strength that we can use every day. And that’s what mental health is about—allowing us to wake up every morning, get out of bed and do the kind of things that we are proud of, the kind of things that we want to do. It’s what allows us to make change in the world.