The Last Refugees

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

Mirrors stretch up to the vaulted ceiling along the wall above the mantle. Resting against them are four black-and-white photos, mounted but not framed.

At the far left is Anh's mother. In the 1940s, her family lived in the country and her husband's in Saigon, so Anh's mother would often travel back and forth. The Communists suspected she was a spy, making trips to exchange information, and sometimes followed her.

One day while she was at home breastfeeding Anh's baby brother, a man stormed in and ripped the baby from her. "Come with me," he commanded. "I'm just going to talk to you for a little while. Don't worry. I'm not going to kill you."

 
 
A family affair: The young Sum (third from top 
left) with the family he left behind in Vietnam.
A family affair: The young Sum (third from top left) with the family he left behind in Vietnam.

Anh was nine years old; her mother was 26. They never saw each other again.

Around the same time, Sum's sister-in-law made a similar trip, leaving her three-month-old baby with her husband's family when she went to visit her parents. The next day, both families began searching for the woman. They never found her.

Later, a witness came forward and told them what had happened. Communists had stopped the woman and accused her of being a spy. She'd begged them to let her pass, because her baby would be hungry; instead, they'd killed her, cut her into three pieces and tossed her remains into a hole. The witness led her family to what was left of her body.

Sum's oldest and second-oldest brothers were killed in the war. His parents' and his grandparents' houses were burned by Communists.

He points to the photo on the far right of the mantel -- his mother. She died in 1989 at the age of 94; Sum had never been back to Vietnam to see her.

He says he won't return to Vietnam until it is a democratic country. He recently visited Japan and North Korea, and couldn't wait to get home to his country, the best country. The United States.

"I know 58,000 American soldiers died for the Vietnam War, and we lost the war," he says. "I don't know why, but I so sad about that, and I know the American people are so nice with their great humanitarian heart to help give us freedom and a life in the United States."

Sum is determined to give something back to this country. He's volunteered twice to go to Iraq, but he's too old. He's president of the Asian Trade and Cultural Center and the Unified Vietnamese American Council of Colorado, and he co-chaired the Aurora Asian Pacific Community Partnership. In 2003 he ran for a seat on the Aurora City Council. Although he lost, he's running again this fall. He says it's all part of his continuing education.

Looking around at her home, at her family, Anh remembers how they came to a foreign place with six children and no money, no home. They've achieved what she never thought possible.

When Melissa sits across from her grandfather, he points to the framed photo of himself in his graduation cap and gown. All of his grandchildren should have a picture like that, he says. "Didn't I tell you, ŒYou get college degree or you don't see my face?'" Sum asks.

She nods.

"They hate me, okay. But I look to the future, because education can change your life," he says. "I'm a great example for you."

"I know," Melissa says.

She graduated from high school early in January 2000 and started working full-time at Top Nails, just as her cousin Erica had done. For a while, every visit to their grandparents' house sparked a lecture. "But he is right," Melissa says now. Last year, she started going to a community college. She plans to transfer to a university and then go on to dental school. Erica is an accounting major at Metropolitan State College.

Sum hands Melissa a black three-ring binder labeled "Student Report Cards." "I keep records to see how they do," he explains.

She smiles at him in disbelief.

At 9 p.m., Sum slips off to supervise the night shift at A.B. Hirschfeld Press.

After he leaves, Melissa says she thinks it's pretty cool that her grandfather came from another country and earned a bachelor's degree here. She also thinks it's cool that her family is so close. She wonders about moving to California, but she can't imagine not seeing grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts and cousins every day. That's what's so great about the nail salon, she says.

Although Melissa can't fathom what leaving Saigon must have been like, she knows the story, tells it to friends, plans to pass it down to the next generation, along with the Vietnamese language.

Danh says it's his duty to make sure that his three-year-old daughter does the same.

"It's like a tree," he says. "When you kill the root, the tree dies, and that's exactly what we're talking about. If you don't hold on to your culture, to your language, the tree dies."

Trinh is less optimistic about her kids -- perhaps because they're teenagers.

"I always threaten them, ŒI'm going to send you back to Vietnam,'" she says. "They won't even speak Vietnamese. They say, 'We're in America.' They're born here, so they're Americanized. They speak [Vietnamese] very little, not enough to carry on a conversation."

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