Walker Story – A Place of Refuge

In 1975 the Walker family living near Rose Hill, Iowa had a 150-year-old farmhouse that was standing empty. In Southeast Asia a group of refugees—called the Tai Dam—needed a place to live. The Walker family would respond to Iowa Governor Ray’s call for sponsors for these Southeast Asian refugees and fill the old house with people and hope.

Getting Ready for the Tai Dams

Married in 1936, by 1975 Raymond and Ruth Walker had a 500-acre farm with row crop, pasture and timber land. They raised about 1,000 pigs a year and sold feeder calves. They had raised three children, one with severe disabilities who still lived at home. They had full lives.

Only a few years before, the Walker’s son, Leland, had served in South Vietnam, arriving there in 1968, just a few months after the Tet offensive. Working in a propaganda unit in the Ben Hoa area, he took thousands of personal photos—pictures of a skirmish he could see from his office, pictures at a nearby orphanage to which his parents sent clothes and other items, and pictures of the Vietnamese he got to know. Leland’s photos in Vietnam made an impression on his family back in Iowa. He recalled, “My folks could identify with the refugees before they even met them because they’d seen they were real people.”

In 1975 Governor Robert D. Ray asked Iowans to reach out to the Tai Dam refugees by acting as sponsors. About seven years after their son’s military service, Ruth and Raymond Walker signed on to be sponsors. Leland remembered his parent’s initial reaction: “They expressed some apprehension and wondered what they were getting themselves into. But yet were willing to take that risk or that chance.”

The Arrival at the Farm

The Walkers thought they were opening their home and their hearts to a few of the Tai Dam. It turned out to be more than that. “We were expecting a family with a couple of parents and a couple of children for the two bedroom house,” said Leland, “and instead got two sets of wives and husbands and five other boys and two other girls. So that was a big surprise.”

Maou Quang, matriarch of the first Tai Dam family that came to the Walker farm, remembers arriving the first day, “I actually have a place to stay with all my family.”

The Tai Dam began to get used to their new surroundings. Many of them enjoyed the river that runs through the Walker’s farm. Leland recalled, “In Southeast Asia these people tend to eat more fish than beef or pork or chicken like they do here. So, having access to a river made them feel like they were at home and they certainly took advantage of it.”

A New Extended Family

In addition to the families that Raymond and Ruth sponsored officially, there were many others they unofficially helped. In 1980 the Walker’s church sponsored a Cambodian family. Leland hired the father to work on the farm and the family lived in the empty farmhouse for eight months. Raymond and Ruth, along with some other church members, once again became “grandparents,” as they were called.

“They are a very special family to our family,” remembered Kim Poam Logan, a child when the Walkers helped her family. She recalled the special connection Raymond Walker made with her and her family “I remember him the most…He made sure he stopped by to see us, always remembered Valentine’s Day to bring chocolate.”

As in any family, there were misunderstandings as they learned from and about each other. And, as in any family, there was a lot of give and take—giving when they could, taking when they needed. When a tornado hit the farm in 1986, many refugees came to help with the clean up.

The lives of Iowans who sponsored refugees were disrupted in some ways, but in most cases the positive experiences outweighed any negatives. “There was a lot of work; there were some farm things that didn’t get done by my folks or later by me because of this.” Leland remembered, “but it certainly wasn’t something that we regretted.”

Ruth remembered the outpouring of support she received from the Tai Dam community when her husband, Raymond, died, “There was more Tai Dams there at that funeral than you could imagine… One Tai Dam that was so talented sang over at the cemetery.” The song was Nearer My God to Thee sung in their native language.

Raymond was laid to rest in 2000, honored by family and friends, many from the other side of the world. There are probably people who don’t understand that the Walkers were simply doing what needed to be done. Someone needed help. So they shared an empty house with a family who needed a home. They took a chance and that made all the difference.