My story is one that begins and ends in faith. I was born in Vietnam in the 1950s to a family of believers. My father was a missionary to the Kho, an ethnic minority group in Vietnam. He worked alongside American missionaries to spread the Gospel.
When the war began to escalate, three of my brothers joined the Vietnamese army and trained in America. Because of our connections to America and our faith, we were discriminated against in almost every aspect of our lives.
During the war, my sister was working at a Christian radio station in the Philippines, broadcasting the Gospel over the radio into Vietnam. After the collapse of Saigon, she and one of my brothers escaped to the U.S. The Communists noticed this and put the members of my family who remained in Vietnam on their blacklist.
The first time the rest of us tried to escape was in 1980. We were caught and thrown in prison for nine months. I attempted to escape again in 1982 and was again unsuccessful. After that, I didn’t think of trying to escape again for another six years.
I’ll never forget my time in the Communist re-education camps. We rose at dawn to work in the fields and didn’t return until dusk. In the evening, we were forced into an assembly where we listened to Communist propaganda and sang songs in praise of the government. It was as dehumanizing as it was absurd.
During those six years before my next attempt, I became involved in the Christian Missionary Alliance Church. I also met a woman who became my wife. It was a risky decision to get married at that time, but somehow I knew even then that the Lord would see us through.
In 1988, I decided to escape again. After days of hiking across the border and through Cambodia with 5 others, sustained only by prayer and a few brief hours of sleep on the ground, I joined 41 other people on a tiny boat leaving the coast. We set sail for Malaysia, spending a total of 5 days and 5 nights on the boat before we arrived.
Most refugees went through Malaysia at that time go through two camps: first to Pulau Bidong and then to Kuala Lumpur, a transit camp where people stay until they’re permitted to resettle elsewhere. After arriving at Pulau Bidong in April, I began working with the church in the camp. During that time, I also got to know one of the UNHCR officers who was also working with the church.
Several months later, I was moved to Kuala Lumpur – an event that was at once exciting and saddening. Exciting, because I was one step closer to rejoining my family in the U.S.; saddening because I was one step further away from my wife. But one day, I was reunited with a friend of mine who had just recently transferred from Pulau Bidong to Kuala Lumpur. This was wonderful enough, but he brought even more wonderful news with him. He told me that he had seen my wife at Pulau Bidong and that she was coming to meet me as soon as she could.
I was skeptical. I hadn’t heard from my wife in months and thought my friend could have made a mistake. I showed him a group picture and asked him to identify my wife. He did. Even more astonishing, my wife was screened by the very same UNHCR officer whom I had befriended in Pulau Bidong. At the end of her interview, he asked her if she was married. She said yes and gave my name. He recognized the name and immediately contacted the UNHCR officers at Kuala Lumpur. My wife and I were reunited in December 1988 – just in time for Christmas.
By May of the following year, we had received permission to resettle in the United States and arrived in Seattle, Washington. It was easier for us than for many others: My sister had married an American solider in 1973 and petitioned for us to enter as immigrants rather than as refugees. Within 20 days after my arrival, I received a call from a man named Quang from World Relief. He helped me apply for Social Security and transition to life in the U.S. by connecting me with a local church.
A few years later, in 1993, I began working for World Relief myself. I’ve been with the organization for over twenty years and seen the transformative impact it has on the lives of newcomers in our country again and again. Among the refugees I’ve served through the years, most who are connected to a local church come to faith in Christ, and many remain in the same local church even years or decades later.
I’ve been in America for 30 years now. I cannot overstate my deep appreciation to this country. I have four children – two daughters and two sons. My first daughter just received a master’s in speech therapy at Biola University. My son is a chemical engineer with a degree from Berkeley. Another daughter is an artist from Long Beach University, and my youngest son is turning 12 this year. If they were in Vietnam now, what would their lives be like? Here in America, they have their own beautiful story in this country. They continue to contribute to America and make it more beautiful, because of the beautiful things this country has done for us.
Sadly, compared to the 1980s, when Presidents Carter and Reagan set the annual ‘ceiling’ for refugee admissions at an average of more than 116,000 per year, the refugee program has declined dramatically in recent years. This fiscal year, the president set the ceiling at a historically low 30,000. As a result of these dramatically reduced arrival numbers, while World Relief Southern California continues to serve refugees and other immigrants in various ways in partnership with local churches, we no longer have new refugee families arriving: there is simply more infrastructure to welcome and integrate refugees than current policies allow to enter.
My children and I will never forget what we have here. This country has given us the freedom to live a life of faith. My hope and prayer is that it will continue to put faith in people like us and open its doors even wider so that the full creativity, talent and diversity of the body of Christ can come in.