Born on September 21, 1926, Shepard Lowman had a long and fulfilling career as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department, a humanitarian and especially as a great friend of Vietnam and the Vietnamese community.
“Shep”, as he was known to friends and family passed away March 2 at his home in Fairfax, Virgina. He was age 86, and is survived by his wife, Hiep Lowman, four sons (Thomas Trinh, Dinh Phuc Nguyen, John Trinh, Mark Nguyen) and four daughters (Kate, Mary, Lina and Lisa).
After law school at Harvard, Shep went into the foreign service and, after a number of appointments in several countries, was sent to Vietnam in 1966. He fell almost instantly in love with the country and its people. At Tet 1968 he was in Chau Doc where he met his future wife, Hiep Lowman.
In 1974 Shep was back in Vietnam as a political officer at the American Embassy in Saigon and in that capacity he was put in charge of helping thousands of family members of American citizens and Vietnamese “at-risk” personnel leave Vietnam in the last frantic days of the evacuation from Saigon in April 1975. The vast majority of these evacuees eventually made their homes in the United States.
Originally, the U.S. intended to take in only 37,000 refugees from Vietnam. But President Gerald Ford decided to raise the admission number to 137,000 and appointed Julia Vadala Taft to oversee the whole initial operation of transplantation of these parolees into the U.S.
Fortunately, Mrs. Taft was ably seconded by the so-called “three Saigon cowboys” at State: Shep Lowman, Lionel Rosenblatt and Hank Cushing. They struggled with the bureaucracy to come up with the budget necessary to run several new arrivals camps (Pendleton in California, Ft. Chaffee in Arkansas, Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, Eglin AFB in Florida) and pay for transition grants to Volags (voluntary agencies) involved in the resettlement of these refugees.
In March 1978 the communist authorities in Vietnam decided to launch the so-called “hit the bourgeois capitalists campaign” and in one day closed and confiscated nearly 35,000 enterprises big and small throughout South Vietnam. In one stroke the economic elite of the country was decapitated.
This engendered a massive flight of people known as “boat people” (and later even “land people”) which became a world-wide crisis necessitating the calling of an international conference in Geneva (June 1979) to divide up the burden of taking care of these poor people who were coming out of Vietnam by the hundreds of thousands.
In the next ten years, about a million and a half “boat people” were admitted and resettled in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Australia, with possibly as many as 400,000 lost at sea. In the meantime, ways were found to ease the risks taken by desperate people and facilitate their coming to the United States.
The orderly departure program (ODP), the so-called “H.O” program admitted former political prisoners released from reeducation camps. The Amerasian Homecoming Act to take in the children of American-Vietnamese couples.In June 1989, a second Geneva Conference tried to put an end to the “boat people” crisis by allowing for forced repatriation of the Vietnamese refugees from camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
The resettlement of refugees, says Lacy Wright, “was not a glamorous job but it was in this work with refugees that Shep Lowman found his calling.” By 1981, he had become the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department Bureau of Refugee Programs “where he worked not only on Indochinese resettlement in the U.S. but other major crises, such as the Cambodian exodus into Thailand that saw over 300,000 Khmer flee into Khao-i-Dang and other large refugee camps.
The Hmong from Laos were another major concern; those mountain people fled into northern Thailand in 1975 and needed and deserved our assistance. Through it all, Shep became the chief advocate in the United States for the acceptance of Vietnamese into third countries, mainly our own. He helped fashion the policies of a re-configured U.S. refugee program, and worked tirelessly within its framework to help the men and women who had been our allies in a brutal war to find refuge on our shores — well after ‘compassion fatigue’ had caused former supporters to question his singlemindedness.”
In his various roles at State he has been able to work with several Vietnamese American organizations to organize themselves to help their own compatriots. Among these should figure the San-Diego based Boat People S.O.S. Committee (this operation closed in 1990 to be taken over by the Virginia-based BPSOS), the Families of Political Prisoners Association (Mrs. Khuc Minh Tho, President), the Washington-based Interfaith Committee for Refugees and Human Rights Concerns, Project Ngoc, and after the forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong and Southeast Asia-based camps, LAVAS (Legal Assistance to Vietnamese Asylum Seekers), ROVR (Resettlement Opportunities for Vietnamese Returnees), etc.
One characteristic approach of Shep was to involve earlier arrivals in the resettlement of later arrivals. Speaking at the North American Vietnamese Games held at the University of Maryland in the summer of 1987, he said: “While you are competing, please remember that there are thousands of young people like you in the camps of Southeast Asia yearning for the day when they can play and compete just like you.” This was the beginning of many self-help projects and initiatives launched by the students returning from those games.
In the Washington DC area, Shep helped the Buddhist Congregational Church of America secure a subcontract with ACNS (American Council of Nationalities Services) and this led to the creation of BSS (Buddhist Social Services), which in three years helped in the resettlement of some 3,000 Indochinese refugees in the Washington metropolitan area.
When Shep’s State Department career came to an end, he was not finished. From positions at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Refugees International, he continued his advocacy for the admission of Indochinese refugees.
He became on occasion a cause of irritation to more than one of his Refugee Bureau successors. They could not, because of his stature, refuse his requests for appointments; but they must have dreaded receiving him, since they knew his purpose and they were well aware that his mastery of the subject far exceeded their own.
Today, untold numbers of Vietnamese-, Cambodian-, and Lao-Americans owe their families’ admission to the United States to Shep Lowman. Their success is his epitaph.
“Shep was not a firebrand,” reflects Lacy Wright, “but a modest man with no taste for ostentation. He had a good sense of humor, mostly directed at himself. His friends will remember him for his intense loyalty to his family, his seriousness of purpose, and his unwavering honesty. His passing is an occasion of sadness.”
Starting in 1991-92, Shep became a Director on the board of Vietnam Aid to the Handicapped (VNAH), headed by Tran Van Ca. In this capacity he oversaw the distribution of wheelchairs to thousands of Vietnamese veterans wounded in the Vietnam war. He also helped the Vietnamese government write legislation and develop access ways for the handicapped.
In the Vietnamese community, Shep will be remembered for his great kindness–extended to even individuals like Tuan Vo, a leukemia patient, and sixty HIV-infected children which he and Hiep sponsored in Vietnam. It is difficult for friends who know Shep not to miss him, his personal warmth and his heartfelt concern for the welfare of all those around him.