After the Americans withdrew from the Vietnam War, their Indochinese allies faced imprisonment, torture, and death under communist regimes. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, 1,228 Tai Dam, an ethnic group from northern Vietnam, crossed from Laos into Thailand seeking asylum. A request for asylum for the entire group was sent to Canada, France, and the United States. Arthur Crisfield, a former U.S. government employee in Laos who had worked with the Tai Dam, wrote letters to 30 U.S. governors. Only Robert D. Ray of Iowa agreed to help.
Ray created his own agency to relocate the Tai Dam, advocated for the greater admission of “boat people” fleeing Vietnam, launched a Cambodian relief program, and lobbied for the Refugee Act of 1980.1 A few families from First Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines sponsored some of these refugees, eventually leading to the formation of Lifesong Church of the Open Bible. No one could have predicted how Ray’s action would impact the life of his own family. No one could have predicted that Robert Ray’s own grandson and the daughter of one of those Tai Dam refugees would fall in love, but that’s just what happened! This is their story.
By Jasmine Vong
I took my parents’ history for granted, especially when I was younger. I heard incredible stories about their living in a refugee camp and their eventual escape, but the extent of the trials they endured never really sunk in.
While growing up I was frequently asked, “Where are you from?” or “Where are your parents from?” I distinctly remember having to think about it every time as if I really did not know. My answer was always “I’m Tai Dam, but I was born in the United States. My parents are from Laos.” But as I got older, I grew more curious. Where did my parents come from and how did they get here?
Former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray had a huge impact on the Tai Dam community. His passion for wanting to bring refugees into the state of Iowa is truly inspiring. He believed in the potential value these immigrants could bring to the state and fought for them until he made it happen. Because of him, many Tai Dam families like mine were given the chance to resettle in Iowa, where they worked hard to create a new life for their families.
One of Governor Ray’s grandsons, Jeffrey Newland, and I both attended Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, where we were part of a mutual friend group. Some of our group went on to attend college at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where Jeff and I became better friends. During our sophomore year of college some friends encouraged us to go on a date. That day we began to form a connection that could not be broken.
Neither of us wanted to be in a serious relationship in college, so we remained friends. Our friendship grew beyond our college years into Jeff’s graduate school years when he attended Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We decided to take a leap of faith and commit to each other in a long-distance relationship. With that came many challenges. We spent many months apart, which is never easy for a couple, especially during a pandemic. Our relationship became stronger after Jeff returned to Iowa to work as an optometrist at a local hospital. We were finally living in the same state again for good – back where we grew up, where our parents grew up, and where Governor Ray’s decision had allowed for our relationship to even be made possible.
Honoring the Past
My parents had always been familiar with my friends since I would talk about them a lot. Ever since I was in elementary school, they knew who my group of friends were. So, during my years in high school and the beginning of college Jeff was in the mix of names of friends I would tell my parents I was hanging out with. One weekend when I was home from college, I was sitting in the car with my mom, Somkong Vong, and she was asking me about school, my friends, and if I was seeing anyone. It was just a typical “catching up” conversation between mom and daughter. (My mom, who has since passed away, was the pastor of Lifesong Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines.) I was very reserved and didn’t like to talk about my romantic life with anyone. But I shyly shared with her that Jeff and I had been hanging out more and getting to know each other. We chatted a bit more, and then she asked me if I knew who Jeff’s grandpa was.
Confused at the question, I looked at her and said, “No. Should I?”
She started telling me the history of how she came to the United States and how Governor Ray was so instrumental in bringing the Tai Dam people to Iowa. Looking back at it, I feel like I took the information with a grain of salt. It was cool in the moment, but my teenage self was just worried about whether Jeff liked me or not! My parent’s history and how it was linked to Jeff’s grandpa wasn’t something that I thought about often. I wanted to get to know Jeff myself on my own terms rather than knowing him for being the grandson of a former governor of Iowa. And that I did.
I feel like I didn’t have a true appreciation for what Governor Ray did until I attended his funeral with Jeff in 2018. After hearing all the memories people had of the governor and his humanitarian ways, it started to dawn on me how special he was. The evening after the funeral service we were sitting around with Jeff’s family and family friends listening to stories about Governor Ray when someone said, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” and stared me straight in the eyes.
He brought up the history of Governor Ray and the Tai Dam community and asked me about how I felt being intertwined with the family who essentially brought my family to Iowa. He had worked with Governor Ray for many years, so he was just curious and very interested, as many people are, about how Jeff and I got to know each other. There was no rude intention, but I was caught off guard.
I broke down crying and said, “I am so blessed that Governor Ray gave my parents an opportunity to start a life in Iowa, because if they didn’t, I would not be here right now. The fact that I am able to know John and Jeff is like life coming full circle.” (John is Jeff’s cousin and one of my best friends. I knew him before I knew Jeff.)
Looking Forward to the Next Chapter
One weekend this past winter, Jeff and I traveled from Des Moines to Iowa City for what I thought was a weekend away to attend a basketball game. Little did I know, Jeff had something else planned. We had dinner reservations scheduled for 6:30, but before we planned to leave for the restaurant Jeff “happened” to ask me if I remembered what the name of a building in the Pentacrest was. (The Pentacrest is an area on the University of Iowa campus that houses Iowa’s Old Capitol.) I told him the name, but he said he did not believe me, that he had to “go find out.” Even though it was still well before our dinner reservation, I rushed to get ready so I could go find this building for Jeff to prove to him that I was right!
We walked downtown and as we approached the Pentacrest, Jeff started slowing down. It was very windy, so I said, “What are you doing? I’m freezing. Let’s go!”
He stopped in the middle of the Pentacrest and said he had a question for me. I was so confused at this point, and then he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him.
I was in complete shock and said, “Yes times 100!”
Afterwards Jeff told me that my family and his family had come over to help us celebrate, and everyone came out of their hiding places. My heart was the fullest it’s ever been. It was the most perfect night to celebrate the next chapter of our lives!
Jeff also respects his grandfather highly. He said,
My grandfather, Robert D. Ray, has had an impact on my life from the day I was born. His values were instilled in me at a young age; they molded me into the person I am today. Whether I was participating in youth sports, family gatherings, birthday parties, or ice cream trips, he taught me the value of respect, trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness, perseverance, wisdom, citizenship, and a caring attitude. When I was young, I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of my grandfather’s efforts or actions, but I could understand how people behaved around him. He had a calm demeanor; he was never the loudest person in the room. Yet people listened when he spoke and had trust in him. Although he has left an impact on many lives, he was always just Grandpa to me. He stayed in the moment, was extremely humble, and always made time no matter how busy he was.
When people ask how Jasmine and I met, I proudly tell them that my grandfather was the matchmaker in forming our relationship. It is amazing how two families with completely different backgrounds found peace in Iowa.
Being the only governor in the United States to accept the Tai Dam people in 1975, my grandpa’s humanitarian efforts changed the lives of so many and provided a resettlement opportunity for them rather than their having to endure the grim conflict in their homeland. He used to say, “The happiest people I know are people who are doing nice things for other people.”
God works in amazing ways, and this is just one example. Only He can bring two people with completely different lives and backgrounds together in the most unique way possible. If Governor Ray didn’t have the passion and the faith in the Tai Dam people, my family would not have gotten the chance to make a better life for themselves in Iowa. I would not be here if it weren’t for him, and I would not have the opportunity to cross paths with Jeff. It was never certain that Jeff and I would end up together, but even after many years of friendship and opportunities to be with other people, we always found our way back to one another. Out of all the families that could be brought together, God managed to bring ours. What a blessing it is.
“You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail” (Proverbs 19:21, NLT).
Chris Cavan, pastor of Lifesong Church of the Open Bible said, “Jeff and Jasmine have been faithful members at Lifesong for many years. I’ve watched Jasmine grow up in the church and develop as a key individual on our creative team. I look forward and am honored to officiate their wedding next August.”
About the Author
Jasmine Vong is a Des Moines native. She attended the University of Iowa where she got her bachelor’s degree in health and human physiology. She is a microbiologist at a probiotic company in Urbandale, Iowa. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, finding new recipes to cook with her fiancé, and spoiling her nephew. She is a member of Lifesong Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa. Jasmine and Jeff will be married in August 2023.
If you would like to watch a video about the story of the immigration of the Tai Dam people into Iowa produced by MyKayla Zylstra and Emily Eppinga, please click HERE
Jeffrey Newland and Jasmine Vong
(Photo by alexakarenphotography)