Interview with Phillip N.—refugee, business owner, foster parent, dad
August 17, 2020
After the U.S. war in Vietnam ended in 1975, the Vietnamese people lived under a repressive communist regime. Citizens associated with the previous government, and anyone suspected of aiding the Americans, were forced into labor camps where they were tortured and starved. Subsequent border wars with China and Cambodia bankrupted the government, and high taxes and trade sanctions plunged the people into crushing poverty. Over the next 20 years, more than 800,000 Vietnamese attempted escape on small, overcrowded fishing boats. Unsuited for deep waters, many of these tiny boats capsized, drowning as many as 200,000 people. Phillip Nguyen was a 14-year-old orphan when he boarded a boat in the darkness, not knowing his voyage would eventually come full circle.
“Live or die, I’ll never see my home again”
By the time I was 5 years old, my mom and dad had both died, and I lived with relatives in a small fishing village near Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. In the early 80s, I was too young to see the politics behind what was happening in my country. The war was over, but people’s lives were only getting worse. Every day, I’d wake up to find another neighbor family had left in the night—20 fishing boats would go out in the morning, but only 10 would return. The rest were gone for good.
The night I left Vietnam was so dark, I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. My cousin, his wife, her two siblings, and I were part of a group leaving by boat. Two or three people at a time could get on a tiny bamboo raft, about the size of a kayak, that ferried us into deeper water where the bigger boat was waiting—the “bigger” boat was just four feet wide by 25 feet long.
We were supposed to leave long before the 6 a.m. sunrise, but our plan was foiled. The boat’s owner delayed our departure, waiting for his brother-in-law who was lost in the darkness. As we went back and forth along the coastline, looking for his brother-in-law’s raft, young men in other boats saw what was happening and climbed aboard our boat. Our original group of 28 people grew to nearly 60. One of the young men put a knife to the boat owner’s throat and said, “We’re leaving now.”
I could see my house from the boat, and I kept watching as my home and my village faded out of sight. At that time, when you left Vietnam, there was no such thing as going back. Even now, in my sleep, I sometimes hear a man yelling, Nhằm hướng mặt trời mà chạy —“Keep the boat toward the sunrise direction.” I thought, This is it—live or die, I’ll never see my home again.
We had no cell phones or Google maps, not even a basic compass; but we had fishermen onboard who knew how to navigate by the sun and stars and keep our boat from capsizing on the open water. Once in a while, we’d see big ships nearby, and we hoped they might save us. But as fast as we could steer toward them, they would always steer away. About two days later, I heard someone yell, đảo Hải Nam!—we’d reached Hainan Island in China. The Chinese authorities allowed us to stay one night on dry land before leaving again for Hong Kong. Many of us on the boat were already feeling sea sick and growing weak from not eating or drinking on the journey. I remember hearing people crying and groaning and others calling out, “Pray! Pray hard!” Part of me was willing to just let the boat sink to put us all out of our misery.
After another two days or so, we were stopped by the Hong Kong Coast Guard. They brought aboard a container ship—a floating iron island, exposed to the weather—along with hundreds of other refugees, some of whom had barely survived after drifting on the ocean for weeks and even months. I remember a Hong Kong policeman lifting me off our boat, and I collapsed the moment he let go of my hand. We’d traveled more than 1,000 kilometers across the South China Sea. Looking back, I don’t know how our tiny boat made it that far.
“I didn’t have to go to bed hungry anymore”
We had survived the journey, but we still had to endure another two weeks on the container ship in quarantine. The days were hot with no shelter, and the nights were cold. We were fed nothing but bread and canned fish. Around noon each day, the Coast Guard gathered us in a group, told us to kneel, and sprayed us with a milky white, chemical solution meant to kill insects and any diseases we might be carrying. That disinfectant would stick to our skin until, hours later, they’d hose us down with water.
From quarantine, we were taken to Jubilee Camp, a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Twice a day, we lined up for food with our one plastic bowl. Each person received one scoop that contained a mixture of rice, meat, and vegetables. At night, we’d listen to the BBC radio or gather around a tiny black and white TV to watch kung fu movies.
Most people were happy, knowing they’d survived, and they could look forward to someday being resettled in the West. Sometimes I’d hear people crying because they’d lost loved ones on the journey or they missed their family back home.
For me, life in the camp was good. I didn’t have to go to bed hungry anymore. For the first time in my life, I owned one pair of shoes, two pairs of boxer shorts, one pair of long pants, and a cool jean jacket—all donated by Hong Kong charities. Each day brought new arrivals who were “fresh off the boat” with stories of their journey and survival that chilled our bones. And each day we said goodbye to friends and families that left to settle in the West, knowing we might never see them again.
In addition to the food lines in the camp, children lined up each morning for a cookie, a cup of milk, and a gospel pamphlet from a Filipino pastor. I wasn’t interested in religion, so I’d line up for the milk and cookie and throw the pamphlet in the trash. One day the pastor realized he hadn’t seen me in line. When he asked the other kids about me, they told him exactly where I was—in jail.
“For the first time in my life, I felt truly scared”
I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was adventurous. I lost my dad when I was about 2 years old and my mom when I was barely 5. So I’d grown up without a lot of adult guidance. One day, a group of people from our boat gathered and made a plan to leave the camp to get some supplies. They needed someone who was tough and street smart, and I didn’t want to pass up a chance to be their hero. Our camp was a temporary holding camp, and we weren’t permitted to leave. Two other camps in Hong Kong provided longer-term housing, and people were permitted to come and go and even hold jobs in the city while they waited for resettlement. The people there had items we needed, so my mission was to sneak out of our camp to one of the other two camps and come back with as many postage stamps, instant noodles, and cartons of Marlboro cigarettes as I could carry.
I lived with my cousin and his family on the second floor of a four-story building surrounded by a 25-foot high barbed wire fence. I was convinced that if we threw blankets over the coiled barbed wire, I could jump from the window to the fence, land on the blankets, and climb down (talk about weird, wild, and stupid—I was all three). Well I jumped, and I hit the mark all right. But I never anticipated that the blanket-covered coils would bounce me up and over the fence and then down to the ground on the other side. It’s a wonder I didn’t break any bones.
Undaunted, I continued on my mission, following the exact route written on my hand: Take bus 2A, count 17 stops, then get off and cross the street. Miraculously, I made it. When I arrived at the camp, people came over to greet me, laughing and crying. They were from my village, desperate for news from home and asking who was on my boat—who had survived.
That night, they threw a big party for me, gave me all the beer I wanted, and put me back on the bus. That was my first time drinking beer. I don’t know how many I had, but I fell asleep on the bus and didn’t wake up until the bus called off for the night. All I remember was the driver screaming at me in a language I didn’t understand (except for the swear words I’d learned) and dragging me off the bus. So much for keeping count of those 17 stops. I found myself walking alone in a strange city in the middle of the night. For the first time in my life, I felt truly scared, and I started to cry.
In Hong Kong, a 24-hour city, it wasn’t unusual for people to be out walking at 4 a.m. A young couple found me and knew something was wrong. They wanted to help, but we couldn’t communicate. So they did what any responsible adult would do—they called the police. The police took me back to the refugee camp, and the refugee camp sent me directly to jail.
The jail was a tiny, filthy room crowded with adult men who ate, slept, and relieved themselves in the same confined space. I was surprised to have a visitor—the Filipino pastor who looked for me in the milk and cookie line. I was even more surprised when he began to cry. No one had ever cried over me before, and that hit me hard. He left a pamphlet with me, and that one I read—until then, I knew nothing about Jesus. A week later, when I was released early, I learned that he’d convinced the authorities to let me out because I was a minor.
But that wasn’t my only experience in jail. Another day when I was lined up for milk and cookies, I heard a commotion behind me. People were beating up a policeman who had beaten an elderly woman. I didn’t know then what was happening or why, but I ran over and joined in. When the cops showed up, I was one of 12 people who got caught, and I was taken straight to jail for the second time for violating the camp’s most serious policy, fighting with the police.
My behavior didn’t reflect well on my family. When we first arrived at the camp, we filed our paperwork as one family of five. But after my second arrest, my cousin asked the United Nations officials who ran the camp to remove me as a family member. They were afraid my record would make it harder for any of us to be resettled.
Once I was formally removed from the family, I became a ward of the camp orphanage, which ultimately worked in my favor. The orphanage was run and provided for by the U.N. That meant I had access to a caseworker, teacher, and nurse. Staff cooked meals for us three times a day. People from all over the world visited often, hoping to adopt a child. Sometimes they were interested in adopting me; but I wanted a chance to come to America, where I could reunite with cousins who already lived there.
“Those kind people loved me so much”
After two and a half years at the orphan home, my caseworker informed me that I got an interview offer with the U.S. immigration office. The immigration officer showed me on a U.S. map where I would be resettled. “Have you ever heard about Michigan?” he asked. I shook my head, and he continued, “It’s near Canada, and it’s cold.” I wondered if Michigan was anything like Los Angeles? Like New York or Chicago? I told him I didn’t care about the cold, as long as it was in America.
On the day of my departure, I was dressed to impress. I wore cowboy boots and my jean jacket. I even had a guitar slung over my back. I looked like a traveling singer. I flew from Hong Kong to Seattle to Chicago—and then to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a midwestern city that didn’t even have a subway. My big-city expectations further crumbled on the ride to my foster parents’ trailer park in a rural suburb. I was sure they’d brought me there as farm labor.
I still have a diary I kept at that time, noting my arrival on March 31, 1983 (it was so cold!). My foster parents were an older Catholic couple without kids. He was Vietnamese, and she was American. Even though their home was small, it felt spacious to me after living with 40 kids and sleeping on three-tiered bunk beds. Having my own room was a new and strangely quiet experience.
I lived there for six months before asking Bethany to transfer me to a different foster home. I’d been raised Buddhist before being baptized in Hong Kong. Still young in my Christian faith, I was afraid my foster family would try to convert me to Catholicism. Those kind people loved me so much; but I was 16 and thought I knew best, and I feel bad about that to this day.
Moving to a new foster family meant changing schools. My last year of school in Vietnam was second grade, and when I came to the U.S., I was enrolled as a high school freshman. The principal recommended that I take three English classes in the mornings and enroll in technical classes in the afternoons so I could learn a trade. He said, “With your background, son, college is not for you.” He said it nicely—I know he could see an uphill climb ahead of me, and he wanted me to make sure I had job skills so I could support myself.
But I wanted to go to college, and that meant enrolling in college prep courses, including algebra, my very first high school class. In my case, the “Asians are good at math” stereotype didn’t hold up, which likely disappointed the two blond girls who wanted to sit next to me. So my foster parents found me a tutor—a local college student named Mark who took me under his wing.
I not only passed algebra, but I went on to college. And when I later taught business math at a local college before starting my own business, I’d often tell my students this story to inspire them on what they could achieve.
“A son without a father is like a house without a roof”
So when I hear people talk about refugee kids in the U.S. as a burden to the community, I think, Is that how you see me? Am I a “burden” to the community? Because I was in the same shoes. I told my wife, Kim, “As soon as we can, I want us to be foster parents.” The way I see it, if you owe something, you pay it back. And I always felt I owed something for the kindness my foster parents showed me. So in 2017, when the last of our three children left home, our “empty nest” lasted just six days. We started refugee foster care with two teens from Eritrea. Then we got an email that Bethany was seeking a foster family for a Honduran boy. When we went to meet him, there were two boys—they’d come from Honduras together and didn’t want to be separated. We said OK and grew to four.
We got a call about an African teen coming to the U.S. from a refugee camp. Our caseworker said other foster families were hesitant because of his profile. I said, “I don’t want to see his profile. I don’t want him to be profiled.” I’m sure my Bethany foster parents had seen my profile, but they gave me a chance. I wanted to do the same.
One of our foster daughters, on the second day she was in America, told us she was four weeks pregnant. Kim and I had several long talks about what it would mean for us to have a house full of teenagers and a baby. Who would take care of the baby while his mother was in school? She didn’t have a job. She couldn’t drive. She knew so little English then, and the list of challenges went on from there. But we wanted to find a way to keep mother and baby together. Today that baby is nearly 3 years old, and we simply couldn’t live without him. The strange thing is that he was born in the same hospital—on the same date and the same hour—as our son, Vinh. What we thought would be a complication turned out to be a special gift from God.
So that’s how we came to have six refugee kids in our home. Earlier this year, I stepped away from five years as president of the Vietnamese Community of Grand Rapids to be Dad to nine kids. We have our ups and downs with three grown biological kids, four African kids, and two Central American kids. People sometimes say, “You’re crazy.” I say, “Yeah, I must be. You have to be.”
One of our kids from Eritrea graduated from high school this year. She came here four years ago after going through more hardship than most of us can imagine. Although she’d never attended school in her home country, she was placed in eighth grade when she was resettled in America. I knew very well what that was like, and I told her my story. She worked hard and finished high school with a 3.5 GPA. We’ve talked often about what it was like for me to go to college and what that might look like for her. She said, “If Dad can do it, I can do it too.”
There’s a Vietnamese saying: “A son without a father is like a house without a roof.” I grew up angry and frustrated that everyone else, it seemed, had a father except for me. That’s a big part of why I foster refugee kids who grew up like I did. It means a lot to me that I can be a father for kids who need one.