Aug 17, 2021 - World

A Vietnamese refugee's message on Afghanistan

Children look at a passing aircraft at a makeshift camp for displaced Afghans on Saturday.
Children look at a passing aircraft at a makeshift camp for displaced Afghans on Saturday. Photo: Marcus Yam/LA Times, via Getty Images

When venture capitalist Peter Pham spoke to Axios last night, he knew he had to call his father, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. But he was nervous about conjuring tough memories and painful empathies.

What he's saying: "I know this stuff's hard for him, particularly the idea of people being left in the lurch ... Hopefully we can all agree that those people who truly put their lives at risk to be on our side aren't left behind," Pham said.

Pham is best-known as an extroverted staple of the Los Angeles startup scene, co-founding a venture incubator/VC firm whose portfolio companies have included Dollar Shave Club, Bird, Liquid Death Mountain Water and PlayVS.

  • He's also a refugee, born in a Pennsylvania camp just one month after the fall of Saigon.
  • His father was a commander in the South Vietnamese navy, and his final military responsibility was evacuating more than two dozen ships on April 29, 1975. These were relatively small boats that should have each held hundreds of people, but in total carried tens of thousands. "It's like those airport videos out of Kabul, packing every possible inch of space," Pham said.
  • They set sail to the Philippines, but were unable to port until swapping out Vietnamese flags for American flags they managed to secure. Then onto Guam, where Pham's mother lied about how far along her pregnancy was in order to board a flight to the U.S.
  • In Pennsylvania, the Pham family was sponsored by an associate of John F. Lehman — a future U.S. Navy secretary and private equity investor who had flown a couple of missions with Pham's father.
  • Pham's father went from commanding naval ships to initially working at a fried chicken fast-food restaurant. His mother would become a social worker (as would his father). His brother would become his high school's valedictorian, but held off on going to a four-year college so that he could help work and support the family.

Pham says he and his family are "proud Americans" and "beyond, constantly grateful" that the U.S. kept its promises in 1975 to those who fought alongside it. But he sounds downright disgusted with what's happened over the past few days.

  • "How could we be leaving the translators behind? These people and their families who had been applying for visas for months, who picked a side — our side — knowing that they'd become enemies of the state and targets if the side they picked lost? Vietnam was different. It was a real surprise, and people still got out."

The bottom line: Peter Pham is a quintessential U.S. success story, rising from a refugee camp into the 1%; helping to create innovative new businesses and jobs for other Americans. The question now for America, including its politicians and pundits, is if it will enable future Peter Phams, or leave them to die in the streets of Kabul.

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