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Interview With Pulitzer Prize Winning Author and Vietnam War Refugeee Viet Thanh Nguyen; Interview with Iran Kaveh Madani, a Former Top Envirornmental Official. Aired 2:2:30p ET

Aired May 28, 2018 - 14:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, migrants in the Trump age. The Pulitzer Prize winning author and Vietnam War refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen

joins the program.

Plus, allies in Europe try to fight off Trump's exit from the Iran nuclear deal that boosts the Revolutionary Guard's. My exclusive interview with

Kaveh Madani, a former top environmental official who's a victim of the fierce struggle between those hardliners and Rouhani's government.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

The U.S. government says that it has lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied, migrant children last year after placing them in sponsor

homes. This as the Trump administration implements even more policies that will likely led to even more children being separated from their parents.

Amid this anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping the United States and the west, my next guest says that his family could have been the poster

children for how refugees make America great. He is Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer, professor and the winner of both of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship

and the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark novel "The Sympathizer." And, yes, he was a refugee from Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So you wrote, you know, an article, you're talking about refuges and migrants and it's caused a lot of, I don't know, controversy, let's

say. What was it that sparked that from you? What moved you to get involved in this highly polarized debate?

NGUYEN: Well, I've always been interested in refugees and immigrants because I am a refugee. And, of course, right now in the United States

we're going through a moment of high anti-immigrant and anti-refugee feeling. So it was really recent actions on the part of the Trump

administration, John Kelly calling undocumented immigrants uneducated and a harm to American society, and Jeff Sessions arguing for the removal of

children from undocumented immigrants. And these are really crises in our society that I wanted to respond to.

AMANPOUR: And let me just, before I play this John Kelly soundbite to remind everybody exactly what you're talking about, just remind us of your

story. Obviously, it's a long story. But you are a refugee, an immigrant. You came with your family from Vietnam, right? When was it? How difficult

was it to assimilate back then?

NGUYEN: Well, it was 1975. I was four years old. My parents were in their 40s. And, of course, the Vietnam War ended and we were on the losing side,

so we fled as refugees to the United States and ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania in 1975. And while it was a great gesture of hospitality on

the part of the United States, what happened to us personally was that I was separated from my parents at four years of age in order to leave that

refugee camp. And that's a, you know, a very traumatic experience and it's stayed with me for a very long time, as well as this understanding that

refugees and immigrants are in need of hospitality and help. And, again, it seems like, at this time in the United States and in many other parts of

the world, that that sense of hospitality has been fading.

AMANPOUR: So then I want to play the Jeff Sessions soundbite because this goes to the heart of the matter that's a big story today as well, allegedly

the U.S. government losing track of something like 1,500 kids who have come across the border from the south. But this is what he said earlier.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's an offense to enter the country unlawfully. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we'll

prosecute you for smuggling. If you're smuggling a child, then we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you probably as

required by law. If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally. It's not our fault if somebody does



AMANPOUR: Yows (ph). That is -- that is the opposite of sympathy, right?

NGUYEN: The exact opposite. And I think that we can have a reasonable debate about borders and the legality of immigration and so on. But the

idea that we're going to take children away from their parents as a war of deterring immigration is inhumane and immoral. So it's a moral question

that I don't think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they stick to this rhetoric of


AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you again, based on this issue and based on what happened to you, you know, in a way the U.S. did something in Vietnam.

That's why there was a need for people like you to flee and come to the United States. It was sort of a direct reaction to a U.S. intervention. So

I wonder if you can comment on that?

And then compare what the United States has done in Central America over the decades that might have prompted even generations since to be refugees.


NGUYEN: Well, of course the United States fought a very controversial war in Vietnam. And one of the strangest and weirdest parts of that was that it

was recorded on TV and in many newspaper photographs. So that war felt very intimate to a lot of people, including many Americans. So when the war

ended, I think a good number of Americans felt that there was an obligation to help south Vietnamese people for whom the United States had been


Now, the situation with border -- immigrants coming from south of the border is not any less complex, but it's less visible to some of the

Americans. And it comes from these issues where refugees and immigrants coming from south of the border are coming for economic and political

reasons. And, in many cases, they're fleeing from situations that the United States has had a hand in, in terms of the United States' involvement

south of the border.

But these kinds of actions that the United States has been involved in have been relatively invisible to many Americans and so, therefore, I think many

Americans don't feel that they do have any obligation to these particular immigrants and so therefore it's easier to behave towards them in an

inhumane or a callused fashion.

AMANPOUR: So let's just go back to these children. It is incredible what's happening to them. The United States says it's trying to place many of them

with family members, if there are, or with people who are known to the children, if possible, or else they go into some sort of, you know, state

control, so to speak. But all obligations end once these kids are put in so-called sponsored units somewhere.

What happened to you? Just the emotion of being separated from your family, or being put in a sponsored family, who you say treated you very well, but,

nonetheless it wasn't your family.

NGUYEN: Well, now I'm the father of a four year old and I was four years old when I was separated from my parents, so I can see through him what had

happened to me. And I certainly remember at four years old that this was a traumatic experience. When you're four, you have no understanding that

you're being taken away from your parents possibly for your own good. All I felt was this tremendous loss and pain. And that has stayed with me through

four decades.

Now, I look at my son, and if I'm away from him for a day or two, I find that to be painful, he finds that to be painful. And so I can completely

imagine that for these children who are being taken away from their parents, under situations of coercion, that the trauma is even greater,

especially if they're being taken away for many, many months. I was only gone for three months from my parents. And if they're being taken away to

sent with strangers who may not be particularly hospitable to them, which was, actually in my case, not what happened. I ended up with sponsors that

were quite nice to me. But even that barely mitigated the situation of being taken away from my parents.

AMANPOUR: And you are a real success story. Obviously highly educated. You are right now a professor of English. You're a Pulitzer Prize winning

author for "The Sympathizer." You've written many books. But I want to play for you what John Kelly, the chief of staff to the president, said about

the quality of immigrants who are coming from -- this time from south of the border, but perhaps he means in general. Let me just play this and

we'll talk on the other side.


JOHN KELLY, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United

States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United

States. They are overwhelmingly rural people. And the countries they come from, fourth, fifth, six grade educations are kind of the norm. They're

coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.


AMANPOUR: So it's -- again, it's pretty brutal. I mean he says that he sympathizes, but you've pointed out that he doesn't empathize.

He is essentially saying that, hey, they're just -- they're not good enough for us.

Your mother, she went through a hard time, right, learning English, learning to assimilate.

NGUYEN: Yes, absolutely. And it's not as if we can simply change our immigrations so that we only admit Pulitzer Prize winners. There's not

enough of those around. And when I look at someone like my mother, she's exactly the kind of person that John Kelly is describing. She was born

poor, in a rural area and she had a -- a sixth grade education. And, nevertheless, she was a heroic woman who transformed her life, both in

Vietnam and in the United States. She was a refugee twice, once in -- once in each country. And it was because of her hard work and survival and

courage that she produced people like me and my older brother, who went to Harvard, and so on.

And so we have to remember that in American history, we have had a pattern of this, which is that new immigrants, new refugees to this country have

always been welcome -- not welcome, but have always been greeted with suspicion by the majority of Americans. And after a generation or two,

these populations actually do become Americans and do produce people, like myself and also people like John Kelly, whose grandparents were Italian and

Irish working class laborers whose English was also suspect. But, of course, I think either he's forgotten that or he thinks that Italian and

Irish immigrants are somehow different from Vietnamese and Latino immigrants, but really they're not.

AMANPOUR: Yes, you know, there is that. There's either a collective amnesia or there is a collective sort of selection, natural selection, where they

think perhaps, you know, white immigrants are better than other immigrants.

[14:10:00] But let's face it, when the boat people, as you say, because you were all known as the boat people because of how you had to flee Vietnam.

When you came west, you were considered the good immigrants. I mean you did come here and work like the blazes and make huge successes of yourselves

for your communities as well. But you take issue with that, right? You don't think you were necessarily the good immigrants?

NGUYEN: Well, first of all, I take objection with the term "boat people," which I find sort of dehumanizing. I think in my own work I call them

oceanic refugees, for example. You have to remember that people who took to the oceans had about a 50 percent survival rate in crossing that ocean,

which is much, much -- much, much worse than what the astronauts have faced.

Now, the other thing is that when the United States accepted Vietnamese refugees, you have to remember that only 36 percent of the American

population wanted to take these refugees. The perception of us was that we were the so-called boat people, for example, and that we would bring all

kinds of problems and contamination to this country. Now, 40 years later, because of the successes of many Vietnamese Americans, that whole past has

been forgotten by many Americans and also by many of the Vietnamese Americans themselves, some of whom oppose accepting for -- new immigrants

and new refugees and so they're repeating what John Kelly himself is -- is doing.

But I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community of the 1970s and 1980s in California and I can testify that there were many of us who were actually

pretty bad refugees doing things like welfare cheating and insurance scams and much, much worse. And we've overcome that, or many of us have.

And the point is not that Vietnamese Americans are perfect or that undocumented immigrants are perfect, but given the opportunity in the

United States, these populations tend to succeed.

AMANPOUR: So, in the end, you're a storyteller and the story is very important, the narrative is very important. And you say that Donald Trump

has succeeded in dominating the narrative and that people like yourself need to get better at countering the narrative and the storytelling.

NGUYEN: And we're all storytellers. I really, truly believe that. And when Donald Trump says make America great again, he's telling a story in four

words that is very seductive and very powerful to many, many people and they repeat that story and they do so over the dinner table and over

Thanksgiving and so on.

And so it's up to us to -- it's up to us who believe in a different kind of story about an inclusive American, about a welcoming America, about an

America that is about all kinds of people, from working class white people to people of color. It's important for us to give another kind of story,

such as, make America love again, which is something that American has been capable of in the past and can be capable of today.

AMANPOUR: Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much for joining us on this Memorial Day.

NGUYEN: Thanks for having me, Christiane. It's an honor.

AMANPOUR: And what a message as Americans remember all those who gave their lives to make America that shinning city on a hill.

Now, immigrants and refugees aren't just news in the United States. All over Europe. In France today, President Macron promised citizenship to this

young immigrant from Mali after he performed an almost impossibly heroic feat over the weekend. He rescued a child who'd been dangling from the

balcony of this Persian apartment block. He bare-knuckled it up, limb by limb, scaling the face of that building. Mamoudou Gassama was quickly

dubbed, you guessed it, Spiderman, and the Paris fire brigade even offered him a job.

Meantime, a Trump administration's threat to punish Europe for doing business with Iran is meeting a fierce pushback as E.U. foreign ministers

met for the first time to discuss strategy today since the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. They also fear that far from breaking

Iran, as Trump has touted, re-imposing tough sanctions would only empower Iran's hardliners and further break the backs of the ordinary people there.

My next guest is a victim of the political tug of war in Iran. Kaveh Madani was a reverse brain drainer. A scientist working in Britain who was wooed

back by the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani to become a deputy vice president and deputy head of the environmental department. His job, to fix

the country's chronic (ph) water crisis after decades of mismanagement. Instead, he endured months of harassment, threats and interrogations amid a

crackdown on environmentalists and eventually Madani resigned. He's now living in a location that we will not reveal and he joined me for an

exclusive interview about Iran's internal power struggle and the chances of success for Trump's regime change play.

Kaveh Madani, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you, what do you make of the leadership in Iran basically warning people about protests, saying that if they do protest,

they are simply falling into the trap of enemies, such as the United States and what they call the Zionists?


What do you make of that?

MADANI: I mean these are very hard times for -- for Iran when -- when the external pressure on Iran increases, I think things get worse for the

people over there because if now they -- they have any sort of peaceful I would say protest, it can be interpreted as alliance with the enemies. And

I think that -- that -- that's what makes things tricky and -- and that's why the external pressure might function in a wrong way, actually, and --

and those who are trying to get some sort of things done, actually get the -- the -- the opposite results.

AMANPOUR: So, in other words, you know, we've heard that the Trump administration believes that they can, quote/unquote, break Iran. You heard

President Trump reach out to the Iranian people when he pulled the U.S. out of the Iranian nuclear deal. But you think it could have the opposite


MADANI: It's an interesting statement when you say you stand by the people of Iran and you call them terrorists or ban them from entry to the United

States and then you say you stand by -- by them. And then you impose sanctions. And all of these would result in -- in the situation becoming

worse for the people of Iran and those who President Trump and others claim to be worried about.

So breaking in -- Iran is not an easy thing, as -- as we have seen. And I think miscalculations on the western side are -- are significant. Plus

you're -- you're putting -- putting people in the middle of a battle between forces. And -- and things won't -- won't get better necessarily. So

breaking Iran is -- is a big claim. And I'm -- I'm not sure if it's backed up by enough facts and a good understanding of how things work in the

Middle East as a whole and in Iran in particular.

AMANPOUR: Well, you said about people getting caught up between the different forces there. You are a classic example of that. Here you are, a

scientist, a water expert. You were doing your job at Imperial College, one of the prestigious -- most prestigious universities in the world, and you

were asked back to Iran by the Rouhani government to work in their much needed environmental and water issues.

How did you get caught up between the hardliners and the Rouhani moderates?

MADANI: Right. So my case is -- is unusual. And, you know, for perhaps the first try in 40 years that they reached out a person abroad, established

and -- and doing his job, asking for help. But I go home and -- and -- and this becomes a positive thing. It becomes a credit for Rouhani's

government, which is doing a good thing. It's -- it's a new thing. And then the hardliners are not happy with any sort of thing, which gives credit to

the -- to Rouhani's administration, on one side, plus to people who break down borders.

I think if you look at my case and compare it with the rest of the people, and some of these people who are in jail and have gotten into trouble, the

whole problem with us is that like we are breaking down the borders.

Like what JCPOA can do. Like in when -- when -- when diplomacy works and when -- when Iran becomes friendlier with other nations, hardliners, no

matter where they are, whether in the United States, whether in Israel, whether in Iran get nervous.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk about the sort of compromat (ph), if we can take that term from what the Russians are brilliant at. When you arrived, they took

your devices, right? They downloaded all the stuff you had had from before you ever set foot in Iran.

MADANI: Yes. Exactly. I mean it was -- it was shocking. I -- I walked in thinking that I'm something, like I'm the deputy vice president of the

country, or deputy head of Iran's department of environment, so I have some sort of protection. No, it wasn't like that. For six, seven months they

tried to prove that I'm a spy. They had like 14 years of e-mails. They knew where I was -- all the details of my life, like, you know, private life.

And -- and they tried hard to prove that. I -- I knew that I'm not a spy. I'm not working for any foreign service, intelligence service, and I -- I'm

in love with my country and I've done anything I could. And in, you know, the years of abroad, four for helping my country, for helping my nation,

because I care -- care about it. I still care about it. And -- and -- and - - and my science was my weapon.

And when thing didn't work out, they tried to release some old photos of mine in which of -- you know, of five years ago dancing in San Francisco in

-- in a warrant (ph) ceremony and -- and saying that a person with that condition, dancing, is -- is not, I think, eligible to serve as a deputy

vice president of an Islamic state.

[14:20:00] AMANPOUR: But let's get to the heart of this because what is very, very troubling, in addition to what personally happened to you and

what professionally happened to you is what's happening to other environmentalists in Iran. There is a huge number who have been arrested

and remain languishing in jail.

Sayed Emarmi (ph) died in jail. His family believe he was killed. The Iranians say he committed suicide.

Why is the environment the hardliners new, political front line? Why do they call environmentalist spies and enemies of the state?

MADANI: Part of the problem is -- is the fact that some of those guys involved in -- in the environmental activism, we're dual nationals. And,

again, an international person who -- who understands the life values in Iran and life values in -- in the west and -- and can -- can function in

both sides and can -- can live in -- in both sides and can communicate to both sides, can be a scary person to the hardliners.

Having enemies and -- and -- and walls are essential to survival if they're hardliners, I believe.

The other thing is, is that the environment has been some sort of a free space. A place to, you know, people to show madness, to -- to -- to

criticize the government on -- on different things and even result in some sort of environmental populism. So if you're concerned about the economy,

if you're not happy with the political system, if you have any other sorts of complaints and you cannot express them, still you have environment where

you can -- you can open up and you can say whatever you want.

The environment can -- can become really connected to -- to the, you know, the demonstrations, tensions and all -- all these things. And that has

become, I think, to an extent, scary for the government that we have seen some up rises, some sort of tensions and different reasons. And Iran

related to water shortage, related to environmental problems, related to dust storms, related to dry up of the Lake Urmia (ph), and these are not

really easy things for the government to handle.

AMANPOUR: Well, exactly. And apparently their own meteorological department says something like 97 percent of the country is suffering from drought.

But they have all these sort of conspiracy theories. And they accuse environmentalists of stopping the weather.

And they called you an environmentalist terrorist. They called you a bioterrorist. They -- because of -- from what I gather, their mismanagement

of the environment and of water is causing so much discontent and so many protests now that they're trying to figure out how to head that off.

MADANI: I mean remember that the -- no water, you can (INAUDIBLE) sand -- the dust storms, these can now be the main cause of protests. At the end of

the day, people come out in the street for economic reasons. They have salary issues and they have payment issues. But -- but when -- when your

economy or your political economy or your social economy is dependent on water, and when people lose jobs because of water shortage, farmers lose

jobs and farmers lose income. A lot can happen. And, you know, we all are familiar with the things which happened in Syria as a -- you know, related

to a drought, which functioned as a catalyst and to -- and to make -- make tensions worse in -- in -- in that region.

AMANPOUR: That's really important what you say because I don't know how many people remember that it was water shortage and drought and

mismanagement of water that there were first manifestations of mass unrest in Syria.

MADANI: So -- so -- so, yes. I mean water was not cause of -- the cause of ISIS, but water was a catalyst. When -- when there was a water shortage,

when farmers lost jobs, when they migrated to cities, started living in suburbs, then economic inequalities, tensions and then people can carry

guns and kill each other. I mean this is not out of the game. And these things can happen in -- in the developing world, in -- in poor economies.

And now we see the consequences for years.

So -- so Iran's political economy is also dependent on -- on water. If you haven't decoupled your economy for -- from water, a water shortage can --

can affect your economy.

And this is the situation. People lose jobs as a result of water shortage.

You know, in the past few weeks they have been getting rains and -- and, you know, people were like, you know, ah-ha, look at it, like, you know,

now they're -- we're getting a lot of rain. Kaveh Madani is gone. (INAUDIBLE) is dead and the rest are in jail. They cannot control the

weather any more.

AMANPOUR: That's incredible.

So what do you think will happen to people inside Iran, ordinary citizens who are affected by these decades of mismanagement, certainly mismanagement

of the environment that's affecting their bottom line? What if they rise up again? Do you think they'll be crushed?

[14:25:00] MADANI: Iran is now suffering from serious water shortage and a lot of battle and regional fights over -- over a water transfer projects.

So we would see more and more tensions. We would see conflicts at the lower -- lower levels. And increased tension can result in -- you know, so -- so

water shortage can function as a trigger to -- to a larger problem.

Right now it's just, you know, keep your eyes on -- on the skies and hope that there would be a rain and -- and things get better. That's how we're

managing the system and we're looking for band aid solution, trying to fix one problem and -- and then we create new problems. This is how we have

managed water in the developing world and in -- in -- in Iran. And, unfortunately, still the west does not understand how things work in -- in

that part of the world. Now, we are seeing problems which are unprecedented. People would suffer for decades from these problems which

were created by bad governance and by years of conflicts and wars.

Environmental problems do not respect our geographical borders. They do not respect, you know, time and -- and they can go across borders and across

time. So generations after us would -- would suffer from the environmental problems there and, unfortunately, the decision makers, the intelligence

services, and the governments of the region miscalculated all these things and never saw them.

AMANPOUR: Kaveh Madani, thank you so much for joining us.

MADANI: A pleasure.

AMANPOUR: And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at And you can follow

me on FaceBook and Twitter.

Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.