Stacey Abrams Reflects On How Friendship With Refugee Impacted Her Career

As a child, the former gubernatorial candidate befriended a Vietnamese refugee who later contacted her after three decades.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams recently opened up about a childhood friendship she had with a Vietnamese refugee and how the experience impacted her career. 

Abrams was featured as a keynote speaker at the Advancing Justice Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this month. She revealed during the speech that years back, she received a letter from an old friend named Julie, who’d been part of the boat lift from Vietnam to Gulfport, Mississippi, following the Vietnam War. Abrams hadn’t spoken to her friend in more than three decades. 

“The fact that she took time to tell me that 35 years before I helped her find her way brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart,” Abrams said. “But it also reminded me of why I do the work that I do.”

The former gubernatorial candidate explained that Julie was 6 years old when they had met in elementary school. The friend’s family had “lost everything they possessed.” Abrams, who said her elementary school class was predominantly white, explained that Julie endured many difficult experiences because she “looked different from everyone else.” 

“Kids laughed at her because she didn’t speak proper English, some children shunned her because she looked so different,” the politician explained. “But she said, ‘Stacey, I remember you because you came and sat with me.’ And she said, ‘You helped me with my English, you would explain things to me in class.’”

Abrams said the pair would try to sit next to each other in class in the years that followed and Julie noted that she’d stick up for her. 

“When she was afraid, I was willing to stand up for her mainly because I don’t like bullies. When she had questions, I didn’t mind giving answers because I’m the second of six children ― that’s how I was raised,” Abrams said. “And when she faced challenges, my job was to stand next to her because I watched ‘Sesame Street’ and that’s what you do with friends.”

The politician noted that while the email was “poignant,” it also saddened her as Julie had remembered that time with “darkness and terror and fear.” 

“When they used disparaging terms like ‘oreo’ for me and ‘banana’ for her, we were locked in solidarity. We knew that our insides were not of their business,” Abrams said. “We knew that our achievements were our own and that we were entitled to the full respect that anyone should imagine and should expect.” 

The letter reminded Abrams about why she aimed to push for proper representation in public service. She said that when she became Georgia House minority leader back in 2011, she initially hired people she knew, admitting she “fumbled the ball” and failed to practice proper representation.  

“I hired people who looked like me ... so our caucus was black and white,” she said. “I was ashamed of myself in that moment because I knew my responsibility was to make sure our caucus didn’t look like me ― our caucus needed to look like Georgia.”

Abrams ended up reaching out to organizations and hired more Asian-Americans. Emily Oh, a woman who had interned with Abrams, eventually became the first Asian-American to become communications director for the Georgia House Democratic Caucus, Abrams said.