By TOM BERG
Knight Ridder Newspapers
SANTA ANA, Calif. – The payment was seven small bars of gold.
The purpose was to reach America. But just where was this fishing boat – hiding Tuan Nguyen, his wife and 120 others – bound? That was anyone’s guess.
“We were seeking freedom. That’s all we knew,” Nguyen, 48, said last week after a remarkable 16-year journey that ended in his sister’s Westminster, Calif., home. “We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know if anyone would pick us up or if they’d send us back to Vietnam or if we’d die on the ocean.”
Nguyen became one of 2,000 Vietnamese boat people stranded in the Philippines since 1989. Unable to enter the United States. Afraid to return home. Outcasts in their new land.
The 16-year logjam broke last week when the United States agreed to accept these overlooked remnants of the Vietnam War. The first planeload of 229 touched down Sept. 26 at Los Angeles International Airport.
When Tuan Nguyen saw the twinkling lights of Los Angeles stretch for miles below his plane, he thought: “Wow, that’s big. I can’t imagine how big this country is.”
And when he tasted his first bowl of pho, a Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, in 16 years, surrounded by family, he thought he’d passed the gates of heaven.
“That was my dream – to come here and eat with the whole family,” he said through an interpreter. “I thought that dream would never come true. And then finally I was here eating, but I still couldn’t believe I was really in America.”
The journey had taken one-third of his life. In that time, his wife bore three children. His mother in Vietnam died. And his sister, Dung Nguyen, who made it to Westminster with her family the same year Tuan arrived in the Philippines, lost her husband.
The brother and sister had lost a lot. Now they’d found each other.
On Tuesday, there were more than 40 similar stories in Orange County, Calif. – stories of perseverance by refugees just flown in from the Philippines.
Thirteen visited St. Anselm’s Cross-Cultural Community Center in Garden Grove to learn about the United States.
“Thank you for waiting and waiting,” program Director Marianne Blank told them. “This will be your country now.”
One man who could barely speak English blurted, “We are so happy to see you today.”
So happy, because in the Philippines they had few rights. They could not hold normal jobs, could not buy homes, could not hope for much education for their children.
Long ago, they had hope. Even as they fled Vietnam by boat, risking their lives to storms, starvation and pirates.
So many fled persecution after the Vietnam War that in 1979 the Philippines opened Palawan Camp, a refugee-processing center on the island of Palawan. For 10 years, it helped hundreds of thousands of boat people reach the United States, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.
By 1989, however, the world decided that Vietnam’s boat people were escaping poverty, not persecution. They were no longer granted the refugee status that allows quick entrance into another country. When the Philippines closed Camp Palawan, Vietnam’s boat people became stuck in limbo.
“We had no hope of leaving the Philippines,” Thai Nguyen, 36, said through an interpreter at St. Anselm’s. “We just lived day by day.”
Talk to any of the Vietnamese boat people stuck in the Philippines or newly arrived here, and they will speak of one man: Hoi Trinh.
Almost single-handedly, he took up their cause – before anyone would listen – and persuaded the United States to accept them. For that, he is their hero.
You’d think he’d be happy. But he is not.
Of the 2,000 boat people in the Philippines, nearly 1,500 have been approved to come to the United States as refugees. One hundred more are expected to be approved. But as many as 400 are expected to be denied – mostly as spouses or children of Filipinos.
“It’s agonizing for them,” Trinh said last week, having arrived in Orange County a day after the first refugees. “I sit there and see the tears every day. I see families torn apart.”
Some spouses have volunteered to stay behind. They feel ashamed and responsible. Other boat people leaving for the United States feel guilty leaving friends behind.
“I want to put my hand on my heart and say, ‘Thank you, America,”‘ said Trinh, 35, a former refugee-turned-attorney who has volunteered eight years of his life for this day.
“The majority of these refugees will now call America home. But it could be such a beautiful ending if everyone was allowed a hearing to come here.”
He’s already working toward that end. And may succeed. When he set up offices in Manila in 1997, no one gave him a chance of success. As little as two years ago, Sister Pascale, a nun who provides food and shelter for Palawan’s boat people, accused Trinh of giving them false hope.
He was giving hope, but not false. And not only to the boat people in the Philippines, but also to their relatives across the ocean in Orange County.
From the day Dung Nguyen heard about Hoi Trinh’s work, she started saying: “My brother’s coming home. My brother’s coming home.”
She stopped watching the videotape of her husband’s funeral every day and started calling friends and relatives. Her children never saw her so happy.
“I started to have hopes and dreams,” she said, sitting beside her brother, who left Vietnam the same year she did but took 16 years to arrive. “I want to say thank you to the U.S. government and especially to Hoi Trinh.”
Long-lost Dung Nguyen ate beef-noodle pho for the first time in 16 years last week. He ate a whole box of sour tamarind. He listened to his sister’s traditional Vietnamese music CDs. He visited a Vietnamese market and a Vietnamese mall.
“It feels like I stepped into heaven,” he said. “But I’m also sad because I remember the people left behind. They’re my friends.”
He can’t forget what they went through: living 20 or 30 to a hut in Palawan Camp for seven years. Struggling to survive on their own with no citizens’ rights. Working 13-hour days peddling toiletries door to door – one of a few jobs allowed the Vietnamese. That or pedaling tricycle taxis.
“We had to leave early in the morning and leave the kids home by themselves to survive,” he said. “We had to walk out past the woods, far away from the city, to sell perfume.”
His sister Dung Nguyen, 50, of Westminster, helped. She sent money and letters urging him not to give up. They gave him hope.
When she finally saw him Monday night, Dung said: “I stopped breathing. Then the tears started coming out.”
As they did for Tuan, too.
“Before I stepped into the terminal,” he said, “I was nervous. Then I heard the crowd, and my emotions started to stir – all kinds of mixed emotions. Then I heard them screaming my name.”
Tuan’s 16-year-long dream has finally come true. So what’s his dream now?
“It’s not a dream for me,” he says. “It’s for my children – to grow up here, to get an education and to become the best citizens they can be. That is my goal: to give them a better life.”