January-February 2022

How a Somerset woman is helping refugees settle in Maryland

Amy Wrona was a toddler when her family fled Vietnam to come to America. Now she’s giving back by helping Afghan refugees begin to rebuild their lives.

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Somerset resident Amy Wrona at an apartment building in Landover Hills, Maryland, that will be home to Afghan refugees. Photo by Louis Tinsley

Amy Wrona lives in Somerset, an affluent enclave wedged between Friendship Heights and Bethesda. A former management consultant with a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins, she’s married to a lawyer and raising three teenagers. But 48 years ago, she was born Hoang Binh Ngoc in Saigon, the daughter of an army intelligence officer who worked closely with the American military. When she was 16 months old, and Vietnam was falling to the Communists, her family fled to America—homeless, penniless, adrift in a new world where her mother spoke no English.

That’s why Wrona volunteers with Homes Not Borders, a small nonprofit based in Landover that’s been helping to resettle refugees in the Maryland suburbs since 2017. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last summer, she notes, the organization’s case load exploded. She tells me about setting up an apartment for a family of five—a husband, a pregnant wife, two children and an uncle—and how closely she identified with them: “I’ve heard stories like theirs at every Vietnamese American gathering over the years. If you’re a refugee, you have amazing stories. I wondered who the uncle was. What kind of life are they going to be able to build for their kids? Are they ever going to be able to go back to Afghanistan and see their loved ones?”

Homes Not Borders focuses on furnishing apartments—everything from beds and couches to wall hangings and toys. The nonprofit even stocks the refrigerators with large containers of mashawa, a hearty Afghan soup made by local volunteers from traditional recipes. Other groups provide the refugees with fresh groceries, clothing or job training. “Think of it as a supply chain of services,” Wrona says. “Each community organization has their specialty, and they do their own thing.”

Over lunch in late November, she recalls watching the Kabul airport collapse into chaos: “One of the things that really touched me about the situation now is that I am exactly the same age my parents were when they left Vietnam. So as the situation in Afghanistan started unfolding, it just made me think more and more about my own parents. They had built a life, like my husband and I have built a life for ourselves, with a strong group of friends and community. And every single time I set up one of these apartments, I think about my mother and what it would be like to move to a completely different country and have to speak a language that is so unfamiliar to me. That’s what drives me to give back over and over and over and over again.”

Wrona sees an “eerie parallel” between the current refugees and her own family. In April of 1975, she says, “Our friends were saying, ‘You gotta leave, you gotta leave.’ And my parents had a few hours to make the decision.” Her father stayed “because he was still in the army, and he didn’t feel like he could abandon his post.” But with the help of a friend who worked for the Americans, Amy’s mother and her four children crowded onto a military transport, and her older siblings remember soldiers firing machine guns at attackers on the ground as the plane lifted off. “They said it was so loud and so terrifying and that I was crying the whole time,” she tells me.

When they finally arrived at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, the processing point for Vietnamese exiles, they had no idea whether Amy’s father had survived. Twenty-four days later, however, he joined them. He had scrambled onto one of the last helicopters leaving Saigon. It was so overcrowded that soldiers kicked several refugees off the flight, but her dad was barely 5 feet tall and managed to hide in a corner and stay on board. “When one of my kids ever complains about being short, I tell them the story of their grandfather,” she says.

The family settled in Houston, where her father found work fixing vending machines, her mother bused tables, and her sister was a cashier at an all-night gas station. Amy dreamed of being a journalist or a foreign service officer, but after college and graduate school she couldn’t afford those career options. “I had an overwhelming number of student loans and I felt like I had to make money for my family,” she says. She joined a management consulting firm and her first bonus check, for $10,000, was half her father’s yearly salary. Romance with her husband, Jim, blossomed on a coed soccer team in Montgomery County, and when she was pregnant with their second child in 2008, they moved to Somerset, which she calls “a most generous, crunchy granola place.”

After her third child arrived, Wrona left her full-time job but took occasional consulting contracts and plunged into volunteer work, mentoring young Vietnamese refugees in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and helping their parents battle landlords for better housing.

So when the scenes from Kabul triggered such strong emotions in her, “I really wanted to do something,” Wrona says, “but donating $500 or giving some old clothes just didn’t seem enough for me.” She did some research and contacted Homes Not Borders. The organization required a big commitment—gather 10 people once a month to help set up new apartments—so she started a group called Somerset Volunteers, not sure what would happen. The reaction has been so overwhelming that folks now have to take turns so that everyone who wants to participate gets a chance.

Volunteers meet at Homes Not Borders’ warehouse, where bought and donated furniture is stored. They learn basic details about the family they’ll be helping: how many people, what ages, the layout of their new apartment. Then the crew “loads up with everything you can possibly think of,” Wrona says, “from art on the walls to tchotchkes in the cabinets to toys in the closets, so when the refugee family walks in, they feel like they have a home.” Most of the apartments are in towns like Riverdale and Hyattsville in Prince George’s County, where the rents are cheaper than in Montgomery County and one property management company is particularly welcoming to refugees. When we talked, Wrona had already outfitted eight apartments.

“As I’m washing the spoons and cups and plates and putting them in the cabinets, I think, how would I like this to be?” she says. “How would my parents like this to be? How can I make this transition as comfortable as possible for these people who’ve been through so much pain and trauma? How do we welcome them as new Americans?” n

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His new book is Cokie: A Life Well Lived. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.