My parents were refugees


I attended the Immigration Ban Protest in Battery Park.

I owe my parents my life, but specifically this life that I live in the United States of America. They changed the future of our family when they fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, making me the first American in our family when I was born in Peoria, Ill. Growing up in the Midwest, which was not particularly diverse, I often wondered what life would have been like if my family stayed in Vietnam.

I heard bits and pieces about their escape, but my parents didn’t speak much about Vietnam and their life there. Growing up, I didn’t speak much to my parents in general who always seemed to be at work. I didn’t realize my dad, who was a pilot in the South Vietnamese air force, would have been sent to a re-education camp or worse. Honestly, I wonder if I would have been born if my family hadn’t been accepted into the United States as political refugees.


My dad in his pilot’s uniform

In 1975 defeat loomed for the American-backed South Vietnamese government, and my father felt he and his family would be killed if they stayed in his homeland. As more of his country fell to North Vietnam, he became increasingly desperate to find a way out. He told my mom, who had given birth to her fourth child just three weeks earlier, that they had to leave their home and families. My mom, a farm-raised country girl and only daughter of seven children, was reluctant to abandon everything that she knew and refused. Fueled by despair and fear, my father pulled out his air force issued gun and pointed it at his head and then hers saying he would kill them right then because it was either death now or death later. I can’t imagine what hopelessness my father felt when he threaten my mom, his wife and mother of his children, but he convinced her to go with him. That night she grabbed what she could and followed her husband into the frightening unknown.

On April 30, 1975 after spending the night in a ditch, my father stole a C7A cargo plane that was not yet done refueling. He and his co-pilot flew my mom, my four older siblings, who were 6, 4, 2 and 3 weeks old, my uncle and 30 other passengers to Thailand. They chose a longer route over the Gulf of Siam to avoid being shot by opposition forces and landed with bone-dry fuel tanks. My dad recounted this story to The Peoria Journal Star in 1985 to mark 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War. From this article I learned that my mother, who had a fever and was still weak from giving birth, fell on the loading ramp and passed out inside the plane. Upon landing, she was taken for medical attention with my dad and their two youngest children while my uncle kept my two older sisters.

The next day after my mom was treated, my father left the clinic and looked for his brother and children in the crowded camp. An American soldier drove him in a jeep around the base for five hours until, as my father says, by the grace of God, they were reunited. They stayed in the refugee camp for five months until Catholic Social Services found a church to sponsor my parents and offer temporary housing in its basement. My dad told me they arrived to Illinois during winter, which was a drastic change in temperature from Vietnam and Thailand. He recounted how he introduced the social workers to my brown-eyed and pouty-lipped sisters and brother in order to secure a spot close to the furnace among the other refugee families. My dad did everything he could to help his family survive and for that I am forever grateful.

On Sunday I protested the Trump administration’s immigration ban with other concerned citizens in Battery Park. I held my hand-painted sign that I made with Fei Fei’s Crayola blue and red fingerpaint that read: “My parents were refugees. 1st generation American. No Ban! No Wall!” I stood among the crowd and thought about the real people being affected by the executive order – some of  whom like my parents were seeking refuge from political turmoil. Beyond the crowd of hats, heads and signs, I glimpsed the Statue of Liberty and wondered if she was shaking her head in shame too.

I owe a debt to my parents for risking their lives so that I can live a more free life. It’s because of their work and sacrifice that I am here. I exercised my right to assembly even as they support this president. My parents are conservatives and Republicans. As devout Catholics, they vote to end abortion rights. Republican President Gerald Ford advocated and helped relocate Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees post-Vietnam War. They saw President Ronald Regan fight communism, a way of governing that forced them to abandon their homeland, parents, brothers and sisters. I know my dad regrets that his father died in 1979 never knowing if his sons escaped alive.

Even though I hold much more progressive political views than my parents, I try to understand theirs and connect to their good-heartedness. I emailed my dad links to this story about a Vietnamese American who tried to help Syrian refugees and another about Catholic bishops and nuns against the immigration ban. I see reflections of our family in the families currently banned from America, and I hope my parents can see the parallels too.

I share my parent’s story, which has profoundly shaped my own, because it is an incredible and uniquely American story. I want America to continue its history of accepting immigrants and refugees (we can talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act another time), but I see that tradition struggling under this administration. I will not let it go without a fight and hope my parents understand that I resist because other families deserve a chance at the America dream just like ours.

With love,


4 thoughts on “My parents were refugees

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Mai. I never knew this. What a powerful story, and an amazing way to honor the sacrifices your parents made for you. ❤️❤️❤️❤️

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