An Interview with SPA Alum Nga Vương-Sandoval, U.S. Refugee Advisory Board Project ManagerJoan Fishburn | School of Public Affairs Sep 30, 2022
Currently, Nga is the U.S. Refugee Advisory Board Project Manager. She works to ensure consistent and impactful engagement with refugees and other forcibly displaced populations through international policy and participation in decision-making forums in the global refugee arena. She concurrently serves as Immigration & DEI Advisor at 3i Law Firm. Her professional experience has included serving at the Colorado Department of Law, the state homeland security office specializing in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and working as adjunct faculty at two universities. Her scholarly book reviews have been published in Oxford University Press.
As a Việtnamese refugee, Nga embraces her heritage and refugee experience and is empathetic to the plight and struggle of other underrepresented and at-risk communities. She is a TEDx Presenter and is active in many advocacy roles, such as the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Nga is a Refugee Congress Honorary Delegate and a founding member and public speaker with the Colorado Refugee Speakers Bureau. She also holds notable roles with Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, Christina Noble Children's Foundation, and the Denver Elections Advisory Committee.
Nga was the recipient of the 2021 Refugee Congress Excellence Award, a peer-nominated award that recognizes exemplary role models who dedicate themselves to advocacy, community engagement, capacity building, and mentorship. She met with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and advocated raising the Presidential Determination. She was honored with a mural by iconic artist/muralist I Am Detour (Thomas Evans) in the historic Five Points District in Denver, Colorado. Nga has also been recognized for her advocacy work by many notable entities, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She was honored with the 2021 Colorado Attorney General's Award for "Outstanding Community Service" and was recognized by the USA for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (USA for UNHCR) in the feature story "Five Inspiring Former Refugees Share What International Women's Day Means to Them." You can also find her NVS Cre-Asian origami line at Ruby's Market in Denver.
Joan Fishburn: In addition to the refugee experience you and your family endured, what called you to advocacy work on behalf of all refugees?
Nga Vương-Sandoval: With regard to advocating for underrepresented communities, it's something I have always had empathy for due to my lived experience as a forcibly displaced person. My advocacy was deeply sparked and nurtured when I entered college. I'm profoundly grateful to have been taught and mentored by extraordinary professors who opened my worldview and widened my lens. It's where I learned about issues and communities that should have been taught in our educational institutions from early on. It's apparent that the educational system has been established in an institutionally exclusive way. There are tremendous omissions of historical facts that have perpetuated and caused harmful effects on communities of color, indigenous communities, forcibly displaced people, and underrepresented groups. These important events have been glossed over or omitted entirely. It's a selective, exclusive and disingenuous mechanism of telling history. There are countless testimonials, documentation, and artifacts to attest to these events. I began learning about events including Japanese internment camps, Chinese Exclusion Acts, Angel Island, redlining, segregation, immigration quotas, and marginalization inflicted upon certain groups, including Indigenous, Latino, Blacks, and other groups. It was enlightening and astonishing.
However, it was disheartening and frustrating to see that little has changed with regard to rights and access for certain communities since that time. I was compelled to begin my involvement in more meaningful ways. I read and learned about the stories of countless unsung heroes and their inspiring and impactful work for others. I asked myself whether the situation has improved for these groups in different capacities, whether educational, institutional, health, or immigration. The answer unfortunately was no to these questions. These disparities and inequities are still happening.
During my process of self-reflection and learning, I began to recognize the significance of raising one's voice. Not only is it imperative, but it's our responsibility. While we have an obligation to serve communities that look like us, it is also important to serve communities that don't look like us. It's particularly important for those with opportunities, privilege, wealth, power, and status to raise their voices for others who lack the privilege of bringing their concerns and issues and bring it to the forefront.
As I learned more about the historical and political context surrounding my own displacement, I also learned more about my refugee experience and my family's story. There continued to be various waves of displaced people whose lives were also in danger and who were fleeing perilous and violent situations in their homelands. Their situations were similar to mine. That's when I had an epiphany. I realized that I would not have been able to reach safety, have refuge, and be afforded the opportunities I've had if someone had not advocated for Vietnamese and S.E. Asian refugees, including my family and me. It's a profound realization that the people who raised their voices for us had no idea who we were when they spoke out, but they had compassion for our plight and suffering. Had these advocates not been bold and courageous enough to bring these issues to light, there's a high and real probability that I wouldn't be present today to share my refugee experiences and perspectives. Most important, I wouldn't be here to fight for human rights for others. This realization is something that I don't take lightly or for granted. As I began receiving incredible opportunities and platforms to advocate, I realized that these opportunities have incredible significance. These opportunities are a responsibility that I have to ensure that forcibly displaced people and underrepresented groups will be viewed and treated as humans through policy, through collective commitment by States and through meaningful action. I never want others to forget who we are, and that we are human and we’re essential to providing solutions in the global refugee regime.
The international humanitarian crisis isn't solely a Denver, a Colorado, or a United States issue. It is a global crisis that's currently happening. Millions of humans from every part of the globe are impacted by situations very similar to what I experienced. In my heart, I knew that speaking out was something I had to do. I had to raise awareness about forcibly displaced people, humanize this issue, and ask people to take action. I had to hold those in decision-making roles accountable for actions contributing to the situation and their inaction that exacerbated the situation. When my family was forced to leave Việt Nam, some compassionate individuals raised awareness regarding the Vietnamese refugee crisis. I now have an obligation in the role that I'm in to ensure that other forcibly displaced people are not forgotten and are provided with an opportunity to live and thrive.
JF: You had the inspiration, but what also gave you the courage to raise your voice?
NVS: For me, it was who and not what inspired me to raise my voice. My father has always been and continues to be my greatest inspiration. Throughout his life, he demonstrated courage, intelligence, an unwavering and righteous moral compass, dignity, faith, generosity, grace, and compassion in every facet of his life despite innumerable adversities. He and his family survived French colonialism, the Việt Nam War, and countless personal hardships that many would never endure in multiple lifetimes. Throughout his life, he advocated in quiet ways to ensure that those in crisis and less fortunate would not be forgotten. His words and his actions always harmonized. It's a trait that I admire and aspire to emulate.
From an early age, I was always determined to express my concerns, especially when I witnessed unfairness, injustice, or when our communities were being erroneously characterized in harmful ways. As we've witnessed, underrepresented communities are still being described in derogatory or dehumanizing ways. As I continued to learn about the injustices that had occurred in the U.S. and globally, it compelled me to advocate. For forcibly displaced people, I appreciated their experience as it was close to my own refugee experience. My father's actions and examples provided the foundation I needed, and he helped guide and remind me that my opportunities are profound gifts. I have a responsibility to ensure that my gifts are utilized to improve the lives of others and to ensure they have an opportunity for safety and to restart their lives.
In recent years, the fashion in which way refugees and immigrants were characterized has been atrocious and dehumanizing. If someone witnesses harm or injustice inflicted upon someone else and does nothing to speak up or defend the person, they're also part of the problem. When someone isn't countering the harm or negative rhetoric they witness, that inaction feeds into misinformation, propaganda, and potential violence. History has proven that something that began as "only words" resulted in 6 million lives being extinguished under an evil and vicious dictatorship during World War II. Words have consequences. Words have consequences on human lives. Inaction impacts human lives. With this realization, I began to utilize platforms and mechanisms that I believed would be effective ways to represent my communities as a whole. It was imperative for me personally that others know and recognize the magnitude of this global humanitarian crisis and take meaningful action.
JF: What is the most challenging part of your advocacy work? And what do you find the most rewarding?
NVS: Regarding my social justice advocacy, one of the most challenging aspects is convincing the broader community that incremental change is change. I recognize that this concept is frustrating for some people to accept. It's important to remind ourselves that the change we've witnessed over the years wasn't achieved overnight. Every small step is one step forward to something much greater that will profoundly impact more people. Without these incremental steps, we're unable to reach the end goal.
I'm aware from the last national election cycle that 77 million people in the U.S. are opposed to what I advocate for. I try to be mindful of this reality, but I also recognize that an even larger community supports my advocacy and the issues I advocate for. I believe that it's challenging to convince some people that change, however incremental, is valuable. There's value in starting with a conversation, having differences in a civil manner, and meeting at a better place than where we started. There's value in recognizing the biggest impact happens gradually and in the most subtle spaces.
Many advocates become frustrated in their advocacy due to the all-or-nothing mindset. It's understandable. We all wish for change to happen now. However, many moving parts are hinging on what we’re trying to move forward. Nevertheless, everything that we've observed throughout history—whether the civil rights movements, the Latino movement, the Asian movement, or the women's movement—didn't happen within a week or a month. It took years and beyond. I view it as progress because I know we're still moving forward from where we began. It's moving in the direction that's required in order to make these changes.
Advocacy is a nebulous and often intangible act. Thus, one of the most rewarding aspects is seeing how those I've connected with will take what they've learned and create something more meaningful for themselves and others. It's equally rewarding to see my efforts being transformed into actionable results for communities that are directly and most impacted. The first example that comes to mind occurred a few days ago. Last winter, I visited 7th and 8th grade students at Kent Denver, where I shared my refugee story and experience. I was so impressed with how astute they are. Afterward, the students were asked to share their reactions and thoughts about refugees for a project. A staff member recently shared that many students had dedicated their refugee projects to me, including quotes from my presentation, a children's book that included my refugee story, a diorama of my journey to the U.S., and hand-drawn portraits of me. They even created a "refugee camp" art exhibit with messages of hope and compassion to educate other students and visitors about their learning experience. It was a creative, beautiful, and unexpected ripple effect. I couldn't believe what I had shared had prompted them to create these various modes of art, education, and expression. It's truly inspiring. It spoke to the power of human connection and authenticity. It spoke to the extraordinary ways these young future leaders have made a difference. It speaks to how we can all make a difference in our own unique ways.
JF: You have received so many accolades for your work in particular. Are there any that are most personally meaningful for you?
NVS: I constantly aspire to stay true to the beliefs and values of my ancestors and, in particular, my late father, whose belief I value the most. When I center this mindset in all I do, I feel empowered and equipped to carry out what they would have wanted me to do. That is, to uphold their most important principles. While I'm honored to be recognized, it wasn't my mission. I am committed to my advocacy to ensure that the principles and beliefs instilled in me from generations before me will carry on. Their legacy will be manifested in my actions to use my gifts and skills for others. It's important that I center my ancestors who sacrificed and endured so much more than I have and to reap the benefits of their labor. There are people who have lost and witnessed significantly more than I have, whether my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents, and those before them. If my advocacy is one way to keep their legacy and honor them, I'm willing and compelled to do it. For me, my hope has always been that the effects of my human rights advocacy would land on the ears of decision-makers who will take this information and convert it into meaningful action. My hope is that they would have compassion for forcibly displaced and underrepresented people and act on the information to do something meaningful for these communities, whether that means a change in policy or direct action to improve the situation and quality of life for these particular communities. My ancestors and this mindset have been my north star. It has guided and grounded me in ways that have been profoundly meaningful and effective in my advocacy and all facets of my life.
Receiving accolades was not my goal. However, I've learned that recognition for my advocacy generates much-needed awareness and uplifts issues and communities that I care about. These communities and issues are being brought to the forefront in ways that otherwise may not have happened. For this particular purpose, I'm grateful.
A meaningful recognition that assisted in uplifting the issues I advocate for was when United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked if I would be interested in being featured for Asian American History and Heritage Month in 2022. It was particularly meaningful as UNHCR was the same international organization that assisted my family and me when we were displaced in refugee camps. They're the same organization that provided direct relief efforts and assistance when we became refugees. Their recognition was serendipitous and profoundly meaningful. UNHCR's story was published in the spring of 2022, and the story "Badge of Honor: This Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, Nga Vương-Sandoval Celebrates Her Name, and Her Journey" was appropriately titled. It perfectly encapsulated who I am, what I stand for, what I represent, my heritage, culture, and the similar experiences of countless forcibly displaced people.
Another meaningful moment occurred last spring when I received a call from the White House. I was invited to meet the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. My first reaction was that this couldn't be real! Within less than twenty-four hours later, I was standing with the First Lady in front of Air Force Two. Before I arrived, I was prepared to use this opportunity to advocate for forcibly displaced people. It had only been a few weeks since the President announced his Presidential Determination for refugee admissions. I wanted to bring a face to this international crisis and advocate for the 28 million refugees across the globe. I wanted to use my voice and experience to speak on issues that significantly impacted the lives of millions of humans. Shortly after that, the President raised the Presidential Determination to its historical numbers. I recognize that it was a collective effort by all who continue to advocate. While this experience isn't an accolade in the traditional sense, it was a reminder that accolades can also take form in high-level advocacy opportunities to serve others. It's an immense and significant type of honor.
JF: Some people may look at a criminal justice degree and think that's the antithesis of the advocacy work that you're doing. Can you tell me how you see those as complementary?
NVS: When I initially pursued my Master's Degree in Criminal Justice, I contemplated why I wanted to explore this field further. I concluded that it was beneficial for me to view this field from a wider lens. I was particularly interested in learning about human behavior. I was intrigued to understand why certain individuals' behavior deviates from the socially accepted behavior instead of abiding by the broader accepted norms of the community. What were their motivations? What contributing factors and attributes lead people into criminal or deviant behavior? I was intrigued by the motivating factors that caused socially unaccepted behaviors.
When I served in my previous role in homeland security, it involved assessing and analyzing whether a particular person, group or situation meets the threshold of an actual threat. While preventing various types of threats was the primary focus of national security, I realized that this perspective was particularly helpful in learning how decisions were being made against certain groups and how public entities viewed certain groups and individuals. Not only did this experience provide me with insight from a national security perspective, but it also provided a lens into why particular groups are viewed as a threat. This knowledge assisted with my human rights work regarding what actual credible threats are and what has been fabricated by rhetoric and xenophobia with regard to immigration and forcibly displaced people. In that regard, I view criminal justice as complimentary to my advocacy. It was an invaluable experience.
JF: Can you tell me about your role as the U.S. Refugee Advisory Board Project Manager at Refugee Congress?
NVS: I'm honored to serve and manage the U.S. Refugee Advisory Board. It's an inspiring and ground-breaking initiative with the mission to ensure consistent and impactful engagement with refugees and other forcibly displaced populations through international policy and participation in decision-making forums in the global refugee arena. It's a self-governing program institutionally housed at Refugee Congress. I'm particularly excited about this role because we're creating opportunities for leaders with forcibly displaced experiences to provide our expertise and input in global and national spaces where decisions are being made about our communities and us. It's about having refugee leadership, representation, and influence in these spaces. In this role, I recently had the honor of being a Refugee Representative and attended the most important convening hosted by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. Leaders and representatives were gathered from various States around the world to collectively propose solutions and best practices regarding forcibly displaced people. It was inspiring and hopeful to see an unprecedented number of refugee leaders participating as part of the decision-making process at this convening. It was a positive step forward to advance priorities for our forcibly displaced communities in refugee camps, internally displaced, are newcomers, or have been leaders in their host countries.
JF: On a different note, tell us about your origami!
NVS: I've been creating origami for over 20 years. I initially created origami due to my deep appreciation of beautiful and intricate paper. Japanese paper is so meticulous and so beautiful. What began as a hobby has now flourished into having various retailers carrying items from my origami line. You can find many of these items at Ruby's Market on Pearl Street in Denver. The items in my origami line range from small gift boxes to magnets, earrings, bookmarks, and ornaments. Ruby's is a particularly special store, as over a third of the artisans and cooks are local refugees or immigrants like myself. Creating origami is a way for me to share the artistic expression that I enjoy by creating it for others. When they support my art, it's a way for them to show their appreciation for art while supporting local refugee and immigrant artists. It's a win-win!