The chaotic scene of Afghan people desperately trying to board a U.S. plane evacuating Kabul is reminiscent of another dark moment in American history. In the final days of the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese people were evacuated by helicopter from the U.S. embassy in Saigon as the city was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1975.

Anh Vu Sawyer was among those evacuated as a college student. She managed to get on board one of those helicopters. And today, she's the executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts in Worcester, which provides assistance to Southeast Asian refugees, immigrants and low-income families. She spoke with Craig LeMoult, in for Arun Rath, on GBH’s All Things Considered.

Craig LeMoult: So, what's it been like for you to watch these images of this frenzied evacuation in Kabul? Does it remind you at all of your own experience leaving Saigon?

Anh Vu Sawyer: Yes. Actually, it's very difficult for me to watch this. About four or five days ago, I experienced this terrible depression and something within me that just feels so hopeless and so sad, being reminded of how Saigon fell so suddenly.

And seeing what's happening, what's going on in Afghanistan at the moment, brought me back to the very fear that I experienced. Forty six, forty seven years ago, I experienced that hopelessness and that fear because of that very eerily, frighteningly similarity between Saigon, the last hours, and what's happening right now in Afghanistan.

LeMoult: Can you tell us your story? What was it like for you that day in April of 1975?

Sawyer: A lot of Vietnamese, including my family, did not know that we would have lost Saigon so quickly because Americans were with us. And like many parts of the world, we always felt that if the Americans were with us, then like nothing could happen to us because America is such a power people. And then within a week, we saw South Vietnamese soldiers rushed back from the north parts of Saigon into Central Saigon, and they told us that, 'The Vietcong is right behind us, you better leave.' And a lot of them shed their clothes and their weapons and their government-supplied clothing. And they walked away with shorts.

And that's when we realized that things were going to happen very quickly. And my brother, who was a student in California, had to fly on a Red Cross helicopter to Saigon — risked his life — to come to us to let us know that we had to leave. He wasn't able to bring us out, but his warning allowed us to figure out a way to leave. So, someone had a shortwave radio with them, and we were told that the communists have entered the outskirts of Saigon and they would be in Saigon by 7:00, or something like that. And so everyone had to leave in a sudden.

So we turned the corner of the street and we saw a huge crowd of people. So we asked the folks, we said, 'what's going on here?' And they said, 'This is the backside of the American embassy. And beyond that gate, there were flying machines.' That's what we call helicopters in Vietnam. 'Flying machines would take people to America.' And I thought to myself, 'Oh, dear God, if we could be beyond that gate, we would have life.' So it was a miracle that we made it over that gate. I can't explain to you how we did, but I have to think by the grace of God, we made it.

LeMoult: Based on your experience and your work now with refugees, what do you think the U.S. Needs to do now in this situation?

Sawyer: I think the U.S., everybody from the government to churches to places of faith, people, families, agency, public schools, I think we all have to be prepared to receive these folks. And in 1975, up until the early 1980s, American churches and families opened their homes, opened their doors, opened their hearts to receive Vietnamese refugees.

I know many Vietnamese — I would say I know thousands of them because of my work — but personally, I know hundreds of them. And every one of the Vietnamese I knew had become a incredible contributor to this country. We have become business owners, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nail salon owners, workers, we work in factories, nurses. We have contributed to this country, not because we have to give back, but we want to give back and we want to have a part in the thriving, in the vibrancy, of this country. And we take great pride of being Americans.

And this is one thing I have to say. I would like very much for Americans, people everywhere in this country, to be prepared to support Afghanistan's refugees the same way they did for Vietnamese. And after all, the U.S. presence in the Middle East had been there for a long time, the same in Vietnam, and mistakes were made. Like the rest of us, we have made mistakes. But the best part about America is that the American people continue to extend themselves to help other people. And this is what history will remember that America, the U.S., was involved in these countries — in these situations — but they also have a very important role to evacuate, and to bring the people who worked with them during this war, to give the protection — to give them and their family protection. And this is what America is about.

LeMoult: So you and the other refugees from Vietnam received a lot of support from the American people. Are you optimistic that that will happen again now for the people of Afghanistan who are evacuated and who become refugees here in the United States?

Sawyer: Yes. First of all, being interviewed on WGBH make me reminded me how wonderful the listeners are. And, well, we have a different president. The country has shown that they still care very much for immigrants and refugees. And I really believe with all my heart Americans are still the same. They care very much for these people. You know, we take pride on what was written at the Statue of Liberty. And the pandemic, working with foundations, different communities, not only the state of Massachusetts — Massachusetts, but throughout the U.S. — I have seen that American people have come together to help people who are in need, and that is intrinsically very American.

LeMoult: Well, Anh, thank you so much for being with us today.

Sawyer: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

LeMoult: That's Anh Vu Sawyer, executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts in Worcester. This is GBH's All Things Considered.