Violence, persecution, and war have forced more than 65 million people to flee their homes. As Uyen Nguyen shares here, their search for safety and a new home can take decades. Her story underscores the precarious position many refugees face, especially given the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the number of refugees entering the US.
Uyen Nguyen was 10 when her parents made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Southern Vietnam. Her grandfather—a high-ranking government official—and father were put in a re-integration camp.
“I don’t think my mom could see a future for us there,” she says. “It was only later that I realized it was because we were pretty much on the blacklist.”
Nguyen recalls thinking that the United States was “like heaven.” When her parents told her they were setting sail for the US, she envisioned them boarding a large, luxurious cruise ship. Nothing could be further from reality.
The perilous journey
The day before they left, her parents told Nguyen and her siblings they were going to visit a relative. They were woken up that night and told to head to the beach. She remembers not being allowed to wear shoes, lest they make too much noise. Something was not right.
“Instead of this beautiful journey I was expecting, we were walking through marshland without shoes, stepping on things, and it was really painful,” she says. “There was a lot of chaos … [we] weren’t supposed to shine any lights, so we couldn’t see.”
On the beach, her four-year-old brother began crying hysterically. They tried to give him a sedative, but the crying continued. The adults wondered whether they should risk bringing him on the journey. In the end, they decided to leave him behind with a local, and he made his way to the United States five years ago.
Nguyen boarded a small wooden fishing boat with her mother, two brothers, her baby sister, and countless others. Three days later, the engine died. They were adrift in the South China Sea without enough food or water. It grew stormy; people started to fall sick, and began dying off. First, Nguyen’s one-and-a-half-year-old sister passed away. Then her mother and eight-year-old brother died on the same night.
“Watching my mother take her last breath was by far the hardest thing I ever witnessed,” she says.
It would be a month before they were rescued by a Filipino fisherman. By then, Nguyen was in a coma.
She and her older brother arrived at a camp as unaccompanied minors. There, they were assisted by a Catholic organization, which helped track down their uncle in California and co-sponsor their immigration to the US.
A fresh start
After a year and a half in the camp, Nguyen and her brother were transferred to La Quinta, California, to live with her aunt and uncle, who became their foster parents. Nguyen remembers everyone being warm and welcoming. Her teachers worked to improve her English and help her assimilate to the culture. The preparation more than paid off when she skipped a grade in school.
A desire to give back arose from gratitude for those who helped her find her footing. Nguyen started volunteering and tutoring at age 16. Now she sits on the board for an organization that supports orphan and foster children. She is also a founding board member of Emerge Washington, an organization that recruits and trains women to run for public office.
“I dedicate the charity work I do to all the folks I’ve never met, but who helped me with my paperwork or through their activism to make sure Vietnamese people could come to America,” she says.
Nguyen earned a degree in biomedical science, followed by an MBA degree, focusing on investment and entrepreneurship. Now, she owns Nue, a restaurant specializing in international street food in Seattle.
“I am here today because of the American dream,” she says. “My brother and I both have graduate degrees, got jobs, and are now solidly planted in upper middle-class life. We have opportunities that many of our friends who are left behind or are still in Vietnam don't have, and that many people around the world do not have.”
“When I see how the world is responding to refugees right now, I just feel like society looks at refugees like they're dangerous,” she says. “In my own experience, it was a very difficult decision for my parents to leave our country, and the consequences of that were even more difficult.”
“We are all humans, and at the end of the day, we are trying to live similar lives. Some of us don’t have the fortune to die in a bed of their choosing—like my mother, brother, and sister. But all humans have the desire to dream, to get the most [out] of life, provide for their kids, and have a healthy and safe life with a roof over their heads.”