The Last Refugees

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

Everyone on the boat cheered Sum on, telling him to kill the congressman. Even after all his time in the military, this was the closest Sum had ever come to killing a man.

Although Singapore wouldn't accept the refugees, officials there provided them with food and water and made arrangements for four naval ships that had escaped Vietnam to take them to a refugee camp in the Philippines. Sum divided his passengers into four groups, then aimed his boat toward the tall ships.

Anh had the children ready and told them to get on the first ship -- but Sum stopped her. He was responsible for these people, he said, so they would wait. He helped the first team, including the congressman's family, climb up.

The Nguyen family today at the Aurora home of Anh 
and Sum.
Anthony Camera
The Nguyen family today at the Aurora home of Anh and Sum.
Coming to America: The Nguyen family soon after 
they escaped Vietnam.
Coming to America: The Nguyen family soon after they escaped Vietnam.

When Sum's boat got to the second ship, Anh again had the children ready to board.

"Let's get on," she said.


By the third boat, Anh would not give in, and climbed on board with her children. "Now it's time to take care of your family," she cried down to Sum.

Her words stung. Sum asked the ship's captain for his assurance that the fourth boat would also go to the camp. His words didn't ease Anh's fears. "I don't want to go on that one!" she shouted.

But Sum had made up his mind, and he pulled his wife and children off the third ship.

Once on board the fourth, Sum was asked to take command so that the captain could rest. He kept in contact with the other three boats by radio. On the second day, he lost communication with the third ship. The captain decided that this fourth boat would return to Singapore. Sum had a bad feeling. After a few hours, he convinced the captain to turn back toward the Philippines.

The next day, Sum heard over the radio that a ship with twelve soldiers on it had surrendered to Vietnam. The twelve had taken command, killing the dozens of men, women and children on board and tossing their bodies into the sea. It was the third boat.

"If I'm on that third ship, my family on that third ship, I'm no longer to talk to you today," Sum says. "We die."

By the time they finally reached the Philippines, they'd been on the ocean for more than 22 days. Dry tents were waiting, along with food, water, clean clothes and their first showers in over three weeks. They were safe.

After about a month in the Philippines, they were moved to another refugee camp on Guam. A month later, the family was sent to yet another refugee facility in California, at Camp Pendleton. Sum still doesn't know how the governments decided who went where; he didn't ask questions for fear the Americans would decide not to let them in.

The Nguyens were among the first wave of Vietnamese refugees to reach the U.S. In 1975, Congress passed a bill granting these immigrants special status and establishing a domestic resettlement program. Many of the 130,000 refugees who arrived over the next year had close ties to the American government and were highly skilled and educated, like Sum.

At Camp Pendleton, Sum's family received cultural training to facilitate their assimilation into American life. Sum filled the rest of the long days trying to teach his family English. And just when Anh had decided that no one would be generous enough to sponsor an eight-person family, a Lutheran church offered to bring them to Colorado.

When Sum's family arrived in Denver thirty years ago this month, they had nothing but the church's promise to cover one month's rent and expense money, and a job for Sum as a "carpenter helper" with a member of the church that was sponsoring them.

On Sum's first day of work, his boss handed him a tool belt. Sum stood frozen, holding the belt on outstretched palms as if it were an offering to the gods.

"What's the matter, Sum?" his boss asked.

"I was an officer in Vietnam," he replied. "I made decisions." Sum had never worn a tool belt, never used a hammer or fixed a door. In Vietnam, he'd point a finger and someone below him would do a task. In America, he'd thought he'd have a better job, that he could do anything he wanted. Instead, he found himself carrying eighty-pound bags of shingles that wreaked havoc on his weak frame.

On the second day, he lost his footing and slid down a second-story roof, catching himself on the gutter.

Sum's children got their start in Denver public schools that same week. They'd walk together to school, then split up and go toward their separate classrooms, classrooms where they were the only Vietnamese children.

Every day, Trinh was told to "go back to your country." Scared and unsure of the language, she took whatever bullying came her way. "I didn't know to tell anybody," she says. "So I just sit there and act dumb."

Suong and Khanh huddled together in the middle-school cafeteria. Khanh was so shy then that she hid her face behind her long hair and sat slouched over. One day, a group of girls started cussing Khanh out and hitting her for no reason. Suong leaped over the table and punched one girl repeatedly in the stomach. She walked away with a black eye.

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