AAFSW/FBS Work Accomplishments: Jackie Bong Wright

I am always proud to share with you the wonderful job that our AAFSW/Foreign Born spouses do around the world. Today, I would like to highlight the remarkable job that one of our members is doing in this difficult time that we are globally facing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jackie Bong Wright, of Vietnamese origin, who joined our AAFSW/FBS Group. I worked with her on a number of impactful programs, such as a powerful presentation she gave for AAFSW on “Human Trafficking.” She and I also organized a Fashion Show with the members of our FBS Group, each one representing the costume of their country of origin to help Jackie’s worthy causes.

I always admire Jackie for her outstanding dedication and the amazing job she does across so many fields for so many people locally and around the world. I have love and respect for Jackie and for all of you who represent with pride the US and your country of origin. I consider you an exotic bouquet of beautiful flowers from around the world. Thank you, ladies, for your friendship, and thank you for keeping in touch with me. Keep safe and healthy.

Jackie arrived in the U.S. in April 1975 after the North Vietnamese Communists took over South Vietnam. As a widow with three children under 10, she struggled hard to start a new life in the Washington area. In 1976, she married a State Department diplomat she had known in Saigon, and accompanied him to various countries in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, spending in the end over 17 years abroad out of the 44 years they have been together.

Earlier, Jackie attended French elementary and high schools in Vietnam. As a teenager, she was encouraged by her teachers, French nuns, to teach illiterate children in remote areas and assist sick people in hospitals on week-ends. After studying at universities in France and returning to Saigon in 1963, she married Nguyen van Bong, a professor of Political Science and Constitutional law at the Saigon School of Law as well as the Director of South Vietnam’s National Institute of Administration. Bong later established the National Progressive Movement, an anti-Communist opposition party dedicated to expanding democracy and fighting corruption. Jackie taught French at the Alliance Francaise and continued working with needy children.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Bong accepted an invitation from President Thieu to become Prime Minister and form a coalition government, but the following day, on November 10, 1971, he was assassinated by the Viet Cong. Jackie, at 30, became a widow, responsible for twins, age seven, and a younger son of five. Two months later, she quit her French teaching job, and became the Director of Cultural Activities for the Vietnamese American Association (VAA), a bi-national cultural center under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service in Saigon. There she organized lectures, conferences, concerts, exhibitions, and vocational classes.

During this time, Jackie also supported women’s causes. Women were then routinely having five to eight children they could not provide for. Widows who had lost their husbands in the war were in especially difficult straits. Through the Vietnamese Women’sAssociation, Jackie helped get employers to pay an additional two weeks of salary to women who delivered babies. In an effort that was more far-reaching, she became an advocate for family planning, especially important because the alternative, abortions, were rampant and dangerous. In 1973, she and her group lobbied the Health Committee of the Vietnamese National Assembly to change the colonial-era law outlawing the use of contraceptives to one allowing methods of family planning. The new law, which had faced much opposition and brought down well-publicized criticism on Jackie personally, was enacted in 1974.

A new phase of the Vietnam War began in 1973 with the Paris Peace Accords, which allowed the North Vietnamese Communists to stay in place in the south and culminated in the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975. Jackie, working with a U.S. agency at the time, had no choice but to flee. She and her children passed through three refugee camps, sleeping on cots under tents in the Philippines, Guam, and California’s Camp Pendleton. They were finally sponsored by Sanford McDonnell, Chairman of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, who knew Jackie from a trip to Vietnam in 1966, and she and her children lived with his family in St. Louis for three months. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, a strong friend of Jackie and her husband from his six years in Vietnam, then urged Jackie to move to Washington, where more of her friends had settled. Two of those friends made available a house in Alexandria, Virginia, and Jackie and her children moved there in the fall of 1975.

Jackie went to work at the Lacaze Gardner School in Washington, where she helped the first group of Vietnamese refugees learn new skills in accounting, secretarial services, keypunch, and radio and television repair. After they graduated, she helped place them in jobs. A year later, she married foreign service officer Lacy Wright and went to her first diplomatic post, the U.S. Consulate General in Milan, Italy. In 1978 they returned to Virginia, residing this time in Falls Church.

That was the middle of the boat people refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Lao were landing in refugee camps in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Jackie teamed up with the Asian Pacific American Women’s organization, Pan Asia, to lobby the U.S. Congress to resettle and assist many of them. Thousands arrived in the Washington area during this second Asian refugee influx. Jackie went to work at the Department of Social Services in Fairfax County, and then in Alexandria City, helping the boat people to resettle in Virginia and become self-sufficient.

A year later, Jackie established the Indochinese Refugees Social Services, or IRSS, a non-profit organization, and opened a temporary shelter for those who, in this large undertaking, were falling through the cracks. She organized vocational training courses to teach the skills in house-cleaning, gardening, plumbing and construction work that local employers needed.

An unintended result of five years of this illuminating and humbling work was that it showed Jackie the way out of her own depression. Having suffered widowhood, the loss of her country, her home and her livelihood, and seen her self-esteem and her identity badly damaged, she realized that others had suffered equally or more, and she found solace and strength in helping them overcome the challenges that had upended her own life. She was grateful for the example of refugees who had arrived with little education, few skills and no money, and yet were resilient and willing to start from scratch in menial jobs in order to survive. She was buoyed, too, by the welcoming attitude of so many American families.

Although compassion fatigue took a toll after several years, and some public opinion turned to criticism, the refugee story overall was a success. The refugees gradually established a network of mutual assistance associations across the country. They built restaurants, nail salons, and cleaning and gardening services, and worked in construction and on assembly lines. At a higher echelon, many became doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, and educators. Their children, with no English at the start, ended up at the top of their classes. Jackie realized that working within her own community, like a fish in water, was her best therapy and the surest way to recover her own identity. Slowly and safely, she came to terms with herself.

At 41, Jackie decided to go back to school. She enrolled at Georgetown University and, in 1984, received a Master of Science degree in International Relations. Then, from 1985 to 1997, she followed her husband to foreign posts, where she worked part-time as a U.S. embassy community liaison officer (CLO) and a para-legal consular officer, interviewing visa applicants. She also raised funds for vocational training for underprivileged women and worked to involve undernourished children in social and educational activities. For this, the mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, awarded her the Key to the City in 1995, the second person to receive the honor after General Colin Powell, whose parents were from Jamaica.

Jackie’s last post before her husband retired was Brazil. From Brasilia, she saw CNN report a trip back to Vietnam by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had gone to Hanoi to apologize to Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap for America’s having fought a “wrong war.” Jackie wanted to ask the Secretary whether it was in vain that 58,000 Americans and millions of North and South Vietnamese died during the war under his tenure. The ghost of the Vietnam War came back to Jackie, not any more as nightmares, but as a vivid movie unrolling in her mind. In the middle of that night, she went to her computer and started to write.

The result, two years later, was Autumn Cloud: From War Widow to American Activist, published in 2001. It depicted four generations of Jackie’s family through four wars: the thousand years of Chinese domination, the one humdred years of French colonialism, the five-year Japanese occupation, and the 10-year war in which the South Vietnamese military and the Americans defended the country against North Vietnam. Her own trials, in the war and afterward, were the heart of the book.

Back in Virginia in the fall of 1997, Jackie took up the issue of human trafficking, triggered by an eBay item seeking buyers for Vietnamese teenage girls at $4,500 apiece. She started lobbying the U.S. Congress and partnering with the State Department’s Office of Trafficking-in-Persons to work with the government of Vietnam to prosecute traffickers as well as to protect Vietnamese workers sent overseas for sex and labor trafficking.

As part of this effort, Jackie saw the need to publicize the plight of Vietnamese workers sent abroad by the Vietnamese government who ended up exploited in sweatshops and brothels, and the related problem of “brides” sold to men in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, and Thailand. It was by then recognized that such trafficking formed part of the world’s third-largest criminal enterprise, after drugs and arms sales. Jackie organized conferences on human trafficking at the U.S. Senate and at universities in California and Pennsylvania, inviting experts, local officials, community organizations and the media to raise awareness of a crime epidemic that was affecting not only Vietnam but the whole world.

In seeking support for anti-trafficking efforts, Jackie also focused on her own Asian-American community. She began writing for the Washington-area newspaper Asian Fortune News, became a commentator for a Vietnamese radio station, and spoke as well on Vietnamese American Television (VATV) and the Saigon Broadcasting TV Network (SBTN-DC).

After 9/11, Jackie joined a FEMA-funded project in Virginia to provide counseling for Vietnamese who had been directly or indirectly affected by that disaster. A year later, to empower and help give a voice to Vietnamese Americans who had succeeded in their careers and businesses, she founded the Vietnamese-American Voters’ Association. With the help of volunteers, she registered citizens to vote at shopping centers, schools, and Vietnamese gatherings. In 2003, Washingtonian magazine made Jackie a Washingtonian of the Year for having registered over 4,000 new voters in two consecutive years. The Virginia General Assembly, in two citations, recognized Jackie for her outstanding work in social services and anti-human trafficking activities.

The publisher of Asian Fortune News asked Jackie for an article on a Senior Olympics Award Ceremony that was taking place in Falls Church, VA. There she met a group of seniors, members of a pageant, who were entertaining the audience with songs and dances. They urged her, as an Asian, to compete along with 13 other women 60 years old or better for the title of Ms. Virginia Senior America 2004. Wanting to show that Asians were contributing their traditional culture to the American society, she entered the competition and won. For the next year, she represented the Ms. Senior America organization in Virginia, volunteering to entertain people at churches, schools, hospitals, and senior centers. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life to be able at 63, to put a smile on the faces of so many people.

From 2012 to 2014, Jackie joined her husband for a post-retirement assignment to the U.S. embassy in Vientiane, Laos. There she worked as the embassy’s community liaison officer (CLO) and supported embassy assistance to Laos’ principal drug treatment center. With volunteers from the local Women’s International Group, she visited the drug center’s section for women, some of whom had been methamphetamine users, and organized weekly courses in cooking, sewing, baking, drawing, line dancing and meditation.

Now back in Virginia, Jackie has her own nationwide weekly program on Vietnamese-American Television (VATV), “The Voice of Vietnamese Voters,” where she comments on Administration policies including immigration, trade, education and health. She is actively involved with CAPAVA (Coalition for Asian Pacific Americans in Virginia), of which she has been intermittently a Board member for 20 years. CAPAVA advocates for the social, economic, cultural and business interests of Virginia’s Asian-Pacific Americans.

As a public service in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, CAPAVA has raised funds to donate thousands of masks and other kinds of personal protective equipment to hospitals and first responders in northern Virginia. Jackie is in charge of the Alexandria area, where she lives, and has herself delivered masks to local police and fire-fighters. CAPAVA has donated a total of 35,000 masks in the Washington area.

Her autobiography, Autumn Cloud, was published in 2001 by Capital Books, Inc. The paperback edition came out the following year. She was one of the 15 individuals named Washingtonian of the Year 2003 by the Washingtonian Magazine for her 27 years of community service and civic participation.

Sheila Switzer
AAFSW Program Chair
& Foreign Born Spouse State Liaison