August 24, 2007

RSU Provides Haven for Vietnamese Refugees

Hours after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese communists on April 30, 1975, southern loyalists began to panic. Would they lose their homes, their meager rights as citizens, or even their lives? The lucky few with inside connections in the South Vietnamese government and military bureaucracy began to scramble for a way out.

On that typically humid, sunny day, 17-year-old Xuan Nguyen and her older sister drove through the chaotic streets of Saigon. At the wheel, her sister sped toward a dock where a South Vietnamese Navy ship was scheduled to leave the bay for an unknown destination in 30 minutes. The Navy was evacuating refugees whose lives could be at risk in a new communist South.

It was a last minute decision to leave. Xuan’s parents had only decided moments ago that the best course of action would be to evacuate their children and grandchildren. Her father’s status as a former government employee was reason enough to believe that his family could be a communist target. Xuan’s brother-in-law quickly organized the family’s escape from Saigon.

“We had planned to meet him at the dock to board the ship,” said Xuan (pronounced “Swan” in English). “We were under the impression that there was no room for my second sister and all my nieces and nephews. But when we got there, we found out that there was room for my other sister, all the children, and their nanny. So we got back in the car and sped back to pick them up. We had no idea if we would make it back to the ship before it left.”

The exodus proved to be successful. The entire family hurried onto the ship with a few minutes to spare. Although they had no idea where they were going, they knew they were leaving a dangerous future in a communist-overrun South.

The rest of the journey may be familiar to many Americans who recall the arrival of huge waves of Vietnamese refugees throughout the spring and summer of 1975. The Vietnamese Navy ship linked up with a U.S. Navy ship that escorted them to safety at Subic Bay in the Philippines. From there, the refugees were flown to Guam and eventually transported to American military bases for processing and relocation. More than 10,000 refugees were sent to Ft. Chaffee, Ark., where the next step of their journey was often determined by happenstance as it was by logic.

Ft. Chaffee was a very strange land for most of the refugees. The dry and forested terrain and American customs were about as far from Saigon as one could get. From there, many were dispersed across the U.S. based on family ties, church-based sponsors, or available work. Xuan’s sisters elected to take their children to Martinique where their uncle owned a Vietnamese restaurant. Although she was tired, frightened and “in shock,” Xuan has a strong sense that she should stay in this new land.

“I don’t know why I chose to stay,” she said. “There was no logical reason for it. It was just a feeling I had. I felt that I could make something of myself and find happiness here.”

Xuan recalls walking around “like a robot” at Ft. Chaffee. She met many new people, both American and Vietnamese, and became re-acquainted with some people she knew from Vietnam. One of those people was Trung Tham, a friend of her brother back in Vietnam. The two became friends before he left for San Antonio to take advantage of an offer by the U.S. government to provide financial assistance for the refugees to attend college.

It wasn’t long before Xuan received a similar offer. In Vietnam, she had just completed her first year of college. For her, finishing her studies in America was a silver lining in an abrupt and disorienting dislocation. So when officials from Claremore Junior College (a predecessor institution of Rogers State University) arrived in Ft. Chaffee with the intent of enrolling about 25 students, Xuan inquired about opportunities available in Claremore.

Dr. Richard Mosier, the president of CJC, and Dr. Danette Boyle, vice president for development, were the first college representatives from Oklahoma to visit the refugee camp.

“I didn’t know whom to trust in Ft. Chaffee,” she said. “It was such a confusing time. But when I met Dr. Mosier and Dr. Boyle, I knew that things were going to be OK.”

Dr. Boyle, who became Xuan’s personal sponsor in the U.S., recalls that Xuan “was so bright and ambitious. She just needed some help getting established in this country.”

It wasn’t long before Xuan and 24 other refugees began the task of settling in the CJC dormitories. They began summer classes on June 1, 1975. But Xuan continued “in a state of shock” during that first year. She began to assimilate herself into American culture by making friends and shopping at Wal-Mart.

During her second year, her English improved and she continued to do well in her classes. She got a job as a dental assistant with Dr. Richard Perryman, a Claremore dentist. But something wasn’t quite right.

“I became very sick,” she said. “I couldn’t eat, sleep, or concentrate. One night my roommate, Hao Nguyen (no relation) arranged to have me taken to the emergency room at the Claremore hospital. Now I realize I was suffering from a combination of loneliness, exhaustion, depression, and a lingering sense of dislocation.”

Her roommate, also a close friend, knew what to do. She called the young man in San Antonio. “She thought I was dying and I think she was right.” Trung Tham knew he had to see Xuan right away. “He drove all night and when he got here, I began to feel better.”

That visit was the beginning of a long-distance romance for Xuan and Trung, who eventually exchanged their marriage vows at the Rogers County Courthouse after Xuan received her associate’s degree from CJC. The new couple transferred together to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah where they lived in married student housing. At NSU, Xuan earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and Trung received a bachelor’s degree in medical technology.

After graduating from NSU, the couple moved to Tulsa where Xuan began a career in banking and Trung enrolled in medical school at Oklahoma State University. Xuan was accepted into the financial officer training program at the Fourth National Bank of Tulsa, which is now Bank of America.

In 1978, Xuan’s parents escaped Vietnam posing as Chinese citizens and managed to reach Malaysia. With the help of U.S. Rep. Jim Jones of Oklahoma, Xuan was able to bring her parents to the U.S.

In 1980, Xuan became a naturalized U.S. citizen and Trung followed suit in 1984.

When Trung completed medical school, the couple moved to San Bernadino, Calif., where he completed his internship. After a year in California, they decided to return to Tulsa. Trung established a successful medical practice and Xuan became branch manager of a Local Oklahoma Bank in south Tulsa, a position she held until 1994.

“We always wanted to be contributors to America, not a burden,” said Xuan, who wears a signature swan broach on her lapel everyday. “We were so grateful to be U.S. citizens and couldn’t wait to become part of the fabric of America.” Last year, the couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

Today, the couple has three sons. Richard, 23, and Charles, 20, both of whom graduated from Jenks High School and are enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. William, 12, is following the footsteps of his older brothers at Jenks Middle School.

Richard, who was named for two important Richards in Xuan’s life, Dr. Richard Mosier and Dr. Richard Perryman, recently took a break from his college studies to visit Vietnam for the first time. He completed a medical mission and met his uncle (Xuan’s brother) and cousins.

“He called me one night and was washing the dishes after a big meal with my family in Vietnam,” Xuan said. “I was so proud of him and of our journey to America. It was like we had come full circle.”