The Next Sunisa Lee?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As the tragic images flicker out of Kabul, we found ourselves turning to the videos that emerged from St. Paul, Minnesota, when the city welcomed home the hero of the Tokyo Olympics, Sunisa Lee. The Hmong-American gold medalist rode atop a flag draped fire truck, waving to an adulatory crowd lining the streets. Suni’s triumph in Tokyo and her poise upon her return gave evidence of the promise of America to refugees from war.
Including, in the case of the Hmong, refugees from a war that America abandoned half way around the world. We do not mean to put the gloss on any American defaults in Afghanistan — or Laos. Sunisa Lee’s story, though, reminds of America’s capacity for something like redemption, following surrender — and even betrayal — abroad. And we do mean to remember why so many are trying to get here.
Like the thousands of Afghans pressing to board the flights streaming out of Kabul, the Hmong fled Laos and Vietnam, where the Hmong had been heroic allies of America in a twilight war against the communists. In the case of the Hmong, and no doubt like many Afghans, they formed a great attachment to America, though coming here as refugees was often hard, and in some cases, even harrowing.
Suni Lee’s father, at the parade for his daughter, thanked three countries for enabling her triumph. Laos and, then, Thailand, for, as he put it, “taking care of us when we needed it,” and ultimately, America, “the Land of Opportunity.” In doing so he named the promise of America to so many, a promise even the Biden Administration has been unable to eclipse for thousands of Afghans scrambling to come here.
The press is already marking that America is going to need an Afghan refugee resettlement law. It is no small task. Foreign Policy magazine had a piece on this head. It recommends using as a template the Indochina Refugee and Migration Assistance Act, which was passed in 1975 and signed by President Ford. It enabled the Americanization of more than 100,000 refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
We covered the fall of Indochina and, at the time, plumped for a broadly welcoming refugee policy. We are of a similar mind today. And to remind of why, we found it uplifting to watch the triumphant welcome home of Sunisa Lee and the eloquent remarks of her father. The parallel mightn’t be exact. It’s a reminder, though, that right now, sitting on the floor of a C-17 bound for Ramstein, could well be the next Sunisa Lee.