Displacement, Rerooting,And Resilience

Lan Dinh

The Southeast Asian community has survived, resisted and been resilient despite institutional neglect. There is more to continue working on internally and institutionally to heal and live whole lives.

Themes in this exhibition:

  • Displacement: Southeast Asian displacement because of the war and then negligent resettlement into Philadelphia
  • Rerooting: Southeast Asians rerooting themselves despite challenges through mutual aid, growing, and food practices
  • Deeper roots and sending out more seeds: Resisting further displacement of gentrification and assimilation through mutual aid, growing, food practices, and intercommunal solidarity

Institutional Violence

Lan Dinh, VietLead, 2022

Southeast Asian resettlement was concentrated in areas between White and Black neighbors and exacerbated existing racial conflicts due to White flight. Neighbors felt frustrated that they were not told about the arrival of Southeast Asians, and many believed myths that Southeast Asians received extra government assistance. The media sensationalized Black resentment towards Southeast Asians, but the truth was there were equal tensions in White communities. Racial tensions in neighborhoods came to a head in multi-racial schools where Asians endured much bullying. The city tried to mitigate the tensions by creating a Southeast Asian Taskforce and a hearing on Asian violence, but to no avail. Lesser known are Black leaders, such as Ada Alexander, who came to the support of refugees and led a free meals program for Southeast Asian children and safety corridors and rallies in Olney and West Philly.


Lan Dinh, VietLead, 2022

The city of Philadelphia was negligent in settling refugees in hazardous homes with slumlords who refused to pay for repairs. These landlords saw refugees as tenants whose rent was guaranteed and who were unlikely to complain since they were unfamiliar with the laws and came from countries where questioning authority was dangerous. Refugees were often threatened with eviction if they complained. Two hundred Cambodian and Vietnamese tenants began a rent strike with the help of Community Legal Services, Asian Americans United, and the Housing Association of Delaware Valley. This monumental win allowed for full rehabilitation of the apartments and subsidized rents!


Lan Dinh, VietLead, 2022

Many refugees found work in agriculture in New Jersey. Land is a critical part of Southeast Asian healing and self-determination. Southeast Asians created or participated in some two dozen community gardens in Philadelphia. Refugee houses can still be easily identified as those with jungle vines and buckets, utilizing every inch of soil and sunlight possible. One group of Hmong residents in Logan kept water crop cultivation alive by growing at a part of the Wingohocking Creek. The garden at University City High School is one of several efforts to improve relations between Blacks and Asians at the school.


Lan Dinh, VietLead, 2022

Isolated from society because they lacked English proficiency and resources, many Southeast Asians were forced to rely on informal economies and illegal activities to survive from the 1980s to the 1990s. At McCreesh Playground in Southwest Philly in 1991, a group of white young men, some belonging to a neo-Nazi group, threatened Vietnamese youth to get out of “their” park. A fight ensued, and a young white man named David Reilly was killed. Sensationalistic media stories demonized the Vietnamese. Three of the defendants were found guilty of third degree murder, and six of criminal conspiracy, despite the court never identifying who actually stabbed Reilly. Meanwhile, Heng Lim, a Cambodian man was killed by a white man and no charges were pressed until five weeks later.

Police racially profiled Southeast Asian communities with a “gang” database, and incarceration of Southeast Asians rose significantly. Today, Southeast Asian refugees are three times more likely than other immigrants to be deported on the basis of an old criminal conviction. 


Lan Dinh, VietLead, 2022

Refugees quickly realized the hollowness of American promises. Despite the negligence of the government to provide for the adequate transition of the Southeast Asian refugees, refugees built out their own support systems and institutions to serve their needs and still have joy and dignity. This included newsletters in Southeast Asian languages, radio stations, cultural Boy Scouts clubs, and more. Resilience also included the secondary migration of leaving Philadelphia to rejoin communities in the Midwest. The Hmong, who experienced the harshest spiritual, physical, and emotional violence and turmoil, resettled in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Washington Avenue

Lan Dinh, VietLead, 2022

In 1990, the first Vietnamese retail plaza was built in a no-man’s land of vacant lots and warehouses. Many businesses were started through mutual aid practices of qui, collecting money. Along the 1600 to 600 block of Washington Avenue, Southeast Asian businesses created an important anchor for cultural food, jobs, and services. Washington Avenue also sits in 19146, currently one of the fastest gentrifying zip codes in the US. In 2020, the selling of Hoa Binh Plaza to a developer led to evictions of business tenants. Protecting further displacement of Washington Avenue has been a call to action for the Vietnamese community. 

In 2019, VietLead worked with Hoa Binh business tenants on a campaign to protect the plaza. This included community rallies and also educaitonal tours. To view the organizing involved in the Protect Washington Ave Campaign, visit www.vietlead. org/save-washingtonave

Since 2015, the organization VietLead has been working with BIPOC and Southeast Asian high school students to collect interviews of family members in Philadelphia, Pa., and Camden, N.J. This intergenerational community archive hopes to offer a space of witnessing, healing, and honoring for our refugee and immigrant community. Through this website, you can listen and watch different oral histories collected by Philadelphia high school students.

Visit: www.vietlead.org/community-archive 


Resistance rooted in


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