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OCEANSIDE, Calif. — San Diego County became one of the first homes for 50,000 Vietnamese refugees who escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon 40 years ago.

“Really, for me freedom is wow…this very real thing,” said Dr. Thao Ha.

It was late April 1975. Saigon was teetering. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese boarded planes and boats, escaping the war they had lost and the country they could no longer call home. Mira Costa College professor Dr. Thao Ha and her parents were among them.

“That’s when they were running to the planes — C130 Hercules — there are explosions, there’s bombs…my mom is carrying me in her arms, she has to jump from a Jeep and she can’t let go of me so she lands on her knees…she’s bleeding,” Ha said.

Like thousands of others, Ha and her family found themselves in U.S. refugee camps. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, she has organized an event, Vietnam War Through the Lens of Time, highlighting the refugee experience.

“You just grab the things that you have and figure out what’s next? Think about what it must’ve been like and it’s hard to imagine if you haven’t been through it,” Ha said.

Ha says the newcomers needed to be immunized and documented. Thousands found themselves living in tents and makeshift structures in refugee camps on military bases across the United States.

“There were 3,000 rescued on the USS Midway in San Diego and processed through the refugee camps.  Or whether it was from the rescue aid of the military thousands from the planes that had gone back and forth, but 50,000 of them ended up at Camp Talega in Camp Pendleton,” Ha said.

Many chose to stay in San Diego, which is now home to more than 33,000 Vietnamese.  They were the first major ethnic group to settle in City Heights, which now is home to San Diego’s Little Saigon.

“It means remembering our past, not forgetting where we came from but also being able to take all the valuable lessons of that and carry it forth.”