From a refugee camp to life in a new country
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Julie Dinh fled Vietnam by boat with her father and 6-year old brother when she was 8. Her father had fought alongside the Americans during the Vietnam war, and he was fleeing for his life. After a terrible ordeal at sea, their boat was pulled ashore in Malaysia where they waited for a new home.
Dinh: We stayed in the refugee camp for a year. We weren’t able to leave the camp until they were sure we were free of sickness. They were also checking our records and our documentation because there were so many refugees at that time.
The refugees were interviewed by immigration people from the United States, Germany, Italy, France and Canada. All of the major countries came in to interview people who were seeking asylum in their country. My dad and my brother and I were interviewed by the United States because my dad still had his dog tags from serving in the South Vietnamese army and he had an uncle in California who was willing to sponsor us.
When the U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam my dad was urged to take his family and leave the country with them. But my mom was scared. She said, “I don’t want to leave my family behind.” So my parents delayed and delayed while they tried to decide what to do. Finally all of the U.S. troops withdrew and then my dad was hiding from the communists because now they controlled the north and the south.
One of my dad’s uncles was killed. He was a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese army. My dad’s other uncle was able to escape by airplane to the United States at the end of the war and settled in California. He sent us money while we were in the refugee camp.
Gallacher: What was life like in the refugee camp?
Dinh: It was scary. They gave us a bed, and all three of us slept together. There were big rats that ran around at night. I was really afraid of them so I slept in the middle. They gave us food and we were expected to work in the camp picking up trash and doing chores. Mostly we just waited for some country to pick us up.
Finally we got word that we could go to California, but first we had to go to the Philippines for three months to learn English and American style.
Gallacher: Was it difficult to adjust to the United States?
Dinh: I started in the third grade when I came because I was a little bit behind. At first I was bowing to my teachers like I did in Vietnam. I remember the other students looking at me like “what’s wrong with her?” But because I was young I learned very fast. For my dad it was more difficult. He worked very hard. He took very good care of us even without my mom here. He saved all my report cards and he was always there for me and my brother.
My dad was a very hard worker, and he had to work a lot. He taught me the value of working and respect. He had many jobs. He made donuts, he ironed clothes in the garment factory, he delivered packages, he sewed clothes in the factory. He worked seven days a week and came home late.
I was like a mom to my brother. He and I did homework together. At first we didn’t know anything, but eventually we began to learn. My dad couldn’t help us with English because he didn’t know. He just worked and supported us.
Even though my dad had two jobs, he would always come pick us up from school and then run back to work. In the evenings, he would call from work to make sure we were all right.
I watched out for my brother. I would always make sure that he was doing the right things. When he started high school I told him, “No ditching school. You have to be in school. No smoking. I don’t want to catch you smoking.” He was more afraid of me than he was of his dad. Finally my boyfriend told me, “Hey, you’re too strict with him. Relax. He’s almost a senior. Let him go.” But my brother and I could always talk to one another. He knew that he could come talk to me.
Gallacher: So you grew up without your mom?
Dinh: Yes. It was 16 years before we saw our mom again. My dad had to petition to sponsor her and my brothers and sisters and that took him 16 years because he had to be a U.S. citizen. He had to save money to prove that he was financially secure and sponsor the rest of the family, so it took my dad a long time. But he waited for my mom. When she came I was 22.
Gallacher: Tell me about the day your mother came.
Dinh: Oh, I remember that day. I always thought of my mom as bigger and rounder. But when she came she was skinny from diabetes, and I didn’t recognize her. I remember saying, “Mom, Mom is that you?”
I hadn’t talked to her for all those years because, back then, it was very hard to communicate with Vietnam. We couldn’t go back and we couldn’t send letters because it would be hard on my mom. The communists gave my mom a hard time. They kept coming to her and asking, “Where did your husband go? Where did your kids go?” My mom’s answer was always the same, “I don’t know.”
Gallacher: How did your mother survive without you?
Dinh: She was very sad but she is a very strong woman. She worked all her life raising my brothers and sisters by herself. She is a very good mother. I learned from my mom and my dad.
Gallacher: How has your experience as an immigrant colored your life?
Dinh: I think it has made me stronger. I appreciate my life in America. We have to thank the American people for giving us all of these opportunities. Even though you have to work to survive here and I do. I work hard. In other countries even though you work hard they won’t leave you and your family alone. Here they give you an opportunity. If you work, you survive.
Someday I want to go back and visit Vietnam. I wouldn’t want to stay because I grew up in America and I consider this my home. Maybe in the future, if I have the ability, I can take my kids back and show them the country that I came from..
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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