National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

Healing and Trauma of Vietnamese Refugee Women

Written by: Tuyet Duong[1], Visiting Fellow, Office for Victims of Crime

One of my earliest thought memories -- as a child of refugee parents in Shreveport, Louisiana -- was wishing that a Vietnamese auntie would separate from her husband so she would stop crying and running away to our house all the time. Over time, my wish materialized into action, the ensuing separation rippling seismically in our family for decades.  My “di” (the Vietnamese title for an aunt on my mother’s side of the family) now leads a different life in a parallel world to ours.

This brief rumination on Vietnamese refugee women and trauma is drawn from a listening session I conducted with my Vietnamese squad two months ago, a group of a dozen incredible survivor leaders from all sectors of community and society. These include an entrepreneur, a renowned author, a British-Vietnamese immigrant, two psychiatrists, and several attorneys. I corralled them into a fact-finding series I was conducting on behalf of a project involving diverse survivors of crime led by the Vera Institute for Justice and more than 30 national and regional partners.

I will list some of the gleanings and gems from this rich conversation: Many Vietnamese survivors, providers, and leaders do not know about the victim assistance infrastructure (whole systems around serving victims of crime). Some new immigrants would rather not engage with the criminal justice system or law enforcement due to having fled from a repressive regime with no rule of law framework. Language and culture and intergenerational/collective trauma are major barriers to accessing justice and services. Healing for our communities is often a lifetime process, involving mixed mediums and alternative modules, such as storytelling, the arts, movement, dance, and even mixed martial arts.

When one colleague described how it took decades for her to get to a space where she and her mother could exchange I-love-yous (since some Vietnamese refugee families do not traditionally articulate this emotion on a routine basis – particularly from parent to child), and how that was her healing, my heart swelled and sang for her.

Academic literature and research supports the experiences and lived stories of these women. One qualitative study of Vietnamese women found that many were very likely to go to friends, family, and faith leaders in order to seek assistance.[2]

One woman recounted: “I talked with my [Vietnamese] priest and my [Vietnamese] neighbors. My priest advised me to give him (her husband) time to change. My neighbors showed their sympathy, but when I asked whether I should call the police would he abuse me again, they just kept silent. I think no one wanted to intervene in other people’s [family] business.  My mother and my siblings told me they couldn’t do anything about it (the abuse) because I was a married woman. My mother advised me not to make my husband angry, not to upset him.”[3]

As a child, a teen, as an adult, and as an immigration attorney and victim services provider in the Vietnamese community, I have seen countless configurations of this scenario play out too many times. As a mother of three small boys, I have a deep professional and personal desire to understand how our collective and historical trauma will play out through future generations.

As a policy practitioner and strategist, I nurture a dream that different systems that look after the best interest of the child will take into account the different layers of connection that bind refugee  and immigrant women to their families and communities – in a way that will have a lasting impact on their own children. This is all intertwined with my work as a Steering Committee Member of the Vision 21: Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime and supported by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges that seeks to align the various systems in their efforts to provide timely and seamless responses to young victims and their families, no matter the system of entry.  

One thought piece on Vietnamese women’s identity examined multicultural counseling and how the model works or does not work in this community. One of the findings included the following statement: “In order to understand the multiple dimensions of today’s Vietnamese refugee women, it is crucial for counselors to acquire a certain expertise regarding the influence that the sociopolitical, socio-historical, and inherited traditional aspects of the Vietnamese culture has had on these women.”[4]

This statement has critical application to the work we do in Vision 21: Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth project, in that while we are supporting our partners in the technical work of ensuring that language assistance is available and effective -- we cannot forget to include the intersectional and deep cultural inquiry needed in order to foster healing to intergenerational trauma.

This requires different actors in different systems to roll up their sleeves and be willing to dig deep into systemic equity issues. During this National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, that is my aspirational hope for the field and the movement.


[1] Tuyet Duong is a Visiting Fellow at the Office for Victims of Crime. Ms. Duong would also like to thank Ms. Avanthika Singh of the College of William and Mary for her research support.

[2] Bui, Hoan N. “Help-Seeking Behavior Among Abused Immigrant Women.” Violence Against Women, vol. 9, no. 2, 2003, pp. 207–239. Sage Journalsdoi:10.1177/1077801202239006.

[3] Bui (2003)

[4] Phan, Loan T., et al. “Understanding Vietnamese Refugee Womens Identity Development. From a Sociopolitical and Historical Perspective.” Journal of Counseling & Development, vol. 83, no. 3, 2005, pp. 305–312. American Counselling Association, doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2005.tb00348.x.