New exhibit honors historic struggles of Austin’s refugees


An exhibit atendee of “Finding Refuge in Austin” pins a response on the wall of the instillation Tuesday night. The exhibit in the Austin History Center focuses on refugees in Travis county. 

Photo Credit: Katie Bauer | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin History Center’s newest exhibit serves to remind residents of the difficulties that refugees in Austin have historically faced and the achievements they made. 

In light of recent political attention toward refugees in Texas, Phonshia Nie, an Asian-American studies professor and an Asian-American community archivist at the center, said the exhibit is especially relevant today.

“Texas has always been on the map in terms of refugee resettlement,” Nie said. “This exhibit is meant to challenge visitors to think about how they define refugee myths.”

The exhibit was not intended as a response to Texas’ legislative decision to withdraw from the federal Refugee Resettlement Program, Nie said. Nie originally pitched the idea last January, before Texas withdrew from the program in September.

The exhibit opened Tuesday and features a variety of artifacts centered on the challenges and contributions of refugees in Travis country from 1848 to 1980.

Ketty Ngyuen, whose written account of her experience leaving Vietnam is featured in the exhibit, was a member of one of the first families to leave Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, in 1976.  

“We’re Austin, we’re immigrants, we’re refugees … and we each have a story,” said Mien Tran, Nguyen’s sister.

The exhibit drew UT students from multiple organizations. Evan Rathjen, director of the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance, encouraged her group to attend the opening.

“I’m really excited to see something like this personally as a student, but I’m also excited to see this on a professional level,” said Rathjen, an English and history junior. “I work with these people every week, and it’s really cool to see their stories put out there.”  

Plan II sophomore Sophie Jerwick is president of the White Rose Society, an anti-genocide group on campus. Jerwick brought her organization to the exhibit so they could be exposed to experiences of refugees.

“I think I spend a lot of time on campus in my own little bubble,” Jerwick said. “(This exhibit) is an opportunity for me to learn about the city I live in.”

Jerwick said she hopes the exhibit will help others see the contributions refugees have made to Austin and keep them in mind for the future.

“I just hope the exhibit helps people put a face to the policies that they’re voting for,” Jerwick said.