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The Last Refugees

This family's roots are in Vietnam, but the next generation is branching out.

"I feel for these people, because we were there as refugees." That's what Trinh Chu has been telling clients -- she asks the non-Vietnamese to call her Trina -- at Top Nails, the Aurora salon she owns with two of her sisters.

This morning, Trinh is sitting Indian-style on a chair in her front office, holding a Winston between two neatly manicured fingers. Under a small shrine with pictures of Jesus, her desk is littered with piles of paperwork, junk mail and half-eaten bags of snacks.

Chi Nguyen, wearing jeans and a baby tee, sits down by her sister. Chi's long hair is dyed blond. She tells people to call her Cali, a nickname she gave herself when she was living in the Golden State years ago.

They've both watched the stories about Hurricane Katrina unfold on television over the past few weeks, images that remind Trinh of what it's like to lose everything, to be filthy and sick with thirst and hunger and forced to leave your home -- not because of a flood, but because of bombs. "Our neighbor," she says, "I remember she was sweeping her front porch, and she said, ŒI'm not going nowhere. I'm staying in my house. This is my house.'"

Trinh looks at her younger sister.

"You don't remember anything, do you?" she asks.

Thirty years ago, when Chi was eight and Trinh was nine, their father, Sum Cong Nguyen, led them, their four siblings, their mother and about thirty others on an escape from Saigon that could have killed them a dozen different ways.

They arrived in Colorado in September 1975, but Trinh doesn't remember any fundraisers or movie stars donating millions of dollars to these refugees, reminders of America's most unpopular war. "I'm not jealous or anything," she says. "I'm just saying they will have a lot more opportunity to make it compared to us."

But this family has made it. Today Sum is a leader in the Asian community, making his second run for the Aurora City Council. Like their father and mother, the five siblings are Americans, living comfortable suburban lives. Chi and Trinh own Top Nails with another sister, Lynda, who changed her name legally from Khanh and recently ventured into the real-estate business. Their eldest sister, Suong, owns her own nail salon just down the street. Their little brother, 37-year-old Danh, "does everything but cook" at Junz, a Japanese-French restaurant in Parker.

Among them, the siblings have nine children, all spoiled by Vietnamese standards. The oldest is a 22-year-old college student and newlywed, who married the first non-Vietnamese in the family.

Danh recognizes that his generation is the bridge between Vietnamese parents and thoroughly American children, a group that's spent the majority of its years as U.S. citizens but still remembers how and why it was that they all got here. They know firsthand how hard work can bring a person up from nothing.

He tells his family's story like he's been waiting his whole life to share it.


To tell their story, he must talk about the others, the thousands of men, women and children who were drowned, starved or trampled trying to flee. As Danh sets the scene, his voice becomes the whisper of an old man sharing ancient secrets, a web of truth and legends that he picked up from family members, friends, other refugees.

By the spring of 1975, after decades of war, North Vietnam was closing in and the South was panicking. People like Sum Cong Nguyen, a captain in the South Vietnamese army who'd been trained by the United States military, had the most to fear.

On April 30, 1975, seven-year-old Danh was crouched inside the sandbag bunker beneath his Saigon home with his mother, Anh, and his brother and sisters. On the radio, President Duong Van Minh -- appointed just days before, after President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and fled -- announced South Vietnam's surrender. By noon, the Communist government was broadcasting Saigon's new name: Ho Chi Minh City.

Despite his wife's pleadings, Sum had left the house to go to headquarters, to receive orders and check on his men. He wove his way through a maze of desperate people -- only to find that no one else had shown up.

Before, Sum had refused to abandon his men or give up on his country. Now the choice was made for him. He rushed home and knocked frantically on his front door.

His family heard the pounding and froze. They didn't dare leave their shelter until they recognized Sum's shouts.

"Get on my ship," he yelled. "Get on my ship right away. Let's go."

"Where will we go?"

"Just go!"

In minutes, they'd grabbed what little they could carry -- food, and photographs of the parents and siblings Sum and Anh would never see again. Sum had a room where he kept his most precious things, valuables that had been handed down from generation to generation, a room the children could enter only on the New Year. They left all of it behind. The children didn't even change out of their pajamas.

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