Here in South Dakota, the debate over immigrants and refugees sometimes feels far removed from our daily life. Some folks are probably wondering why they should spare a thought for refugees, or care whether our president raises or lowers the cap on resettlements.
Those same people might be surprised to learn that I’m a refugee. I was raised in Sioux Falls, where I’m a business owner, and although I’ve lived in South Dakota for three decades, I was born in Vietnam. I came to this country as a baby when my parents fled persecution through the Amerasian Homecoming Act.
We were mixed-race: my grandmother was a savvy Bien Hoa businesswoman who had my father with an American stationed in Vietnam that died after slipping below the wheels of a tank. After the war, my father was victimized for his association with the United States, and the Amerasian Homecoming Act granted us the rights of refugees. More importantly, it gave us the hope of calling America our permanent home.
My mom loved the arts, but took work as a hotel housekeeper while my dad put in long shifts at a meat-processing plant. They took pride in paying their way and avoided government handouts, always working to contribute rather than to take. I credit my own success to their example—and to my grandmother’s toughness and entrepreneurialism.
I grew up knowing that their sacrifice was an investment I could not return. I worked hard in school and won a full scholarship to study journalism at the University of South Dakota, where I edited the student newspaper. Before I was due to graduate, my mother suffered a heart attack and I left college to support her. I took any work I could find, from managing a restaurant to working in a law firm. At one point I was waiting tables in one restaurant, managing another, and mixing drinks at a third, putting in 20-hour days to pay a mortgage and utilities.
It was hard work, but I discovered that I loved the hustle of small businesses and that I had a flair for serving people. Mixed with my journalism and communications acumen, my experiences, including the perspective I brought as an immigrant, made me a valuable asset to many businesses. At 26 years old, I was promoted from a traveling sales job to head of public relations for My Place Hotels, the Aberdeen-based hotel chain. Over the next five years, I helped My Place triple in size, building about 60 hotels across the country and creating hundreds of jobs in cities and rural communities.
I wanted to build something of my own, though, so earlier this year, I launched a boutique PR and communications firm. Most recently, I became a Rotarian, started a three-year term with Dakota Resources, and helped rebrand Startup Sioux Falls, a community of business founders committed to innovating our local economy.
Research from New American Economy shows that refugees are the most entrepreneurial group in America, with 13% of us starting our own businesses. In working with local businesses here in Sioux Falls, I’ve seen how immigrants and refugees help our economy. Immigrants only make up 4% of our state’s population, but they pay over $198 million in taxes, and pour almost $679 million into the local economy.
My parents taught me to work hard, and to take pride in supporting myself and my family. They also taught me to love America and sink new roots into our community–lessons I’ve taken to heart. I’m now a proud U.S. citizen, but I’ll always be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and for the welcome we received in South Dakota after fleeing discrimination in Vietnam. I’m committed to giving something back, in my own small way, by creating jobs, supporting our economy, and helping small business owners to succeed.
Welcoming people in makes our community stronger, and it’s an affirmation of the American values we all share. I hope we’ll all take a moment to recognize the contributions that our foreign-born neighbors make in our communities. Let’s make South Dakota a welcoming place for those who need our help. They will surely help us in return.
Ngoc Thach is a business owner based in Sioux Falls, SD. Born in Vietnam, she moved to the United States in 1991 and was raised in South Dakota. She now runs MixMaker, a marketing collective in downtown Sioux Falls.
Perspectives is an ongoing series of columns from South Dakota’s African American, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, immigrant and refugee communities.