A 40-year milestone had passed but Anh Vu Sawyer ’79 was too busy to spend much time pondering the significance.
As the executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEAC) in Worcester, Mass., Sawyer was fully engaged in the assistance and support of refugees, immigrants and low-income residents from a variety of cultures.
And now, a new group of people, Mandeans from the Middle East escaping the persecution and violence from the Islamic State group, was asking for assistance from the organization—despite being technically outside the SEAC’s mandate.
“We felt an obligation to assist them,” said Sawyer. “Like all of our clients, we want people to be productive Americans, to speak English, to thrive, but we also want them to retain their culture and heritage—to not forget where they came from.”
And that 40-year date—April 30, 1975—reminded Sawyer of her journey to the United States, to Calvin College and to the career of empowering people from many countries and ethnic groups.
“Public television had just aired the documentary Last Days in Vietnam, a film I had been asked to screen portions of in its early days of production,” she said. “One of my siblings watched it and noted that my family was filmed going over the fence at the U.S. Embassy.”
Last Days in Vietnam included the chaos of April 30, when helicopters took the last U.S. personnel—and some Vietnamese people—off the roof of the embassy and to U.S. ships off the coast.
Sawyer’s family was among those evacuated on the very last day.
“I always wondered what God had in store for me, how He would use me,” she said. “I never imagined I would be helping not only Asian refugees but people from all over the world.”
Sawyer’s family was among the thousands who resettled in the United States. She was able to attend Wheaton College for a year and then transferred to Calvin and graduated with an economics degree. Her amazing story is chronicled in her book Song of Saigon, which recounts the Christian conversion of her family and the many challenges they faced in Vietnam and the U.S.
“The most significant thing Calvin did for me, and for which I am always thankful, was to affirm me as a woman—that I could do anything,” said Sawyer. “Calvin also assured me it’s perfectly safe to live and work with non-Christians, and to always strive for excellence in all I do. I was taught to marvel and appreciate the work of others, whether they were Christians or not, because God created each of us with special gifts.
“I believe that all these things prepared me to be the best I can be for God’s purpose: as a humanitarian serving trafficked Hmong women in the Vietnam highlands, as the director of an organization serving refugees from war-torn countries, a writer and as an artist and a business woman.”
Sawyer became the leader of SEAC in 2012 after working for the airline industry and for a clothing retailer. She also worked—and continues to do so—as a designer in her husband Philip’s clothing design studio.
SEAC serves seven diverse cultural communities, first just from Vietnam, but now from other Asian countries as well. Recently added are the Mandeans from Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
The organization is involved in every aspect of service and sponsors an annual Asian Festival that draws 3,000 persons a year.
As if Sawyer doesn’t have enough on her plate, another struggling community of women has tugged on her heart and compels her to service.
“I read a story in 2011 about Hmong people in Vietnam who were trafficked to China after the war, enslaved and then sent back,” Sawyer said. “Their families didn’t want them. My heart was burdened for them.”
She located Hop Tien, a remote northern Vietnamese Hmong village, and has been helping the women there develop skills so they can be self-supporting. Sawyer takes a one-month leave from her work each year to work for their sustainability.
“They are creative people, weavers, artists. We are helping them craft marketable products, such as clothing items for tourists. I felt that God put this on my path,” she said.
Her goal in every interaction: meet basic needs, but also encourage a preservation of culture and language.
“It is truly by the grace of God that I am here and what I am doing,” said Sawyer. “Every day is a miracle day, to serve whomever comes in our door.”