Grit, determination leads Vietnamese nurse to America
November 1, 2013
For Thulan Phan, the path from Vietnamese nurse to U.S. government employee has been one of grit and determination accompanied with a never-give-up attitude.
Phan, currently a management analyst with the Expeditionary Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., fled Vietnam as part of what became known as the Vietnamese boat people. Millions risked their lives fleeing the Southeast Asian country after the Vietnam War through the early 1980s, many on small boats.
"My father came home from the labor camp and said we had to go," said Phan, who heard about the war but didn't live in a war zone, so she knew little of it. "The whole family had planned to go but had to go separately. I was the lucky one. I left and did not get caught. They got caught, but planned to go again. Every time you try, you have to pay money for the people to help you. My family ran out of money so they stayed there."
The first leg of the then 20-year-old's journey started hours before daybreak in her hometown of Sa Dec and ended 75 miles later in Rach Gia near the Gulf of Thailand. There, she would wait a few days before making it onto a boat.
"I left my house early in the morning," said Phan, who worked as a nurse before her escape. "During the trip, I pretended to be part of a family of fishermen. My family had made arrangements in Rach Gia for someone to pick me up. We drove out to the coast and hid in some bushes on the shore where the coast guard could not see us.
"If I got caught, I would have lost my job and went to jail or to what they called re-education camps for those caught escaping."
When it was safe to leave, Phan and 26 others boarded a small fishing boat and made their way to the open waters. For the next four days, Phan and her compatriots floated in international open waters. On the water, the things they feared the most were storms, diseases, starvation and pirates.
"The main things that the pirates wanted were currency and gold. They thought people took their wealth with them because gold and money were easy to hide," said Phan, whose dad, stepmother and five sisters still live in Vietnam. "They might want to take girls, too, but we were lucky. The pirates did not take any of the girls in my boat. We were robbed three times and the third time the pirates took one of our back-up engines."
Interestingly enough, Phan said the fourth pirate ship that approached saw their boat and helped instead of robbing them.
"Our boat was a mess and they knew we had been robbed. They saw that we had no food or water and there was nothing else to rob," she said. "To our surprise, they towed us into a small village where we stayed in a temple until the local authority transferred us to a refugee camp in Surathani, Thailand."
Phan stayed at that camp for a week and moved during the next 13 months to camps in Thailand, Indonesia and finally to Singapore.
"Life in the camps was tough. Everyone who left Vietnam had to stay in a camp. If you have a family or someone somewhere to sponsor you, you could leave faster," said Phan, who often found the language barrier in the camps difficult. "I didn't have anyone to support me while I was in the camps. We had food and shelter there, but if I wanted to buy something I needed money and I didn't have any. I ended up working as a receptionist at the camp hospital and got paid about $10 a month and that was considered good wages."
For Phan and her fellow refugees, life in the camps had its ups and downs.
"I don't think any of the crimes that were committed were reported. Many people in the camps did bad things but there were some who did good things," said the optimistic Phan. "My co-worker in the camp asked her brother in Toledo, Ohio, to sponsor me and he agreed. Six months later, after the paperwork was finished, I was accepted into the U.S."
Leaving the refugee camps, Phan's first stop in the U.S. was a layover in San Francisco where she said everyone looked taller and things looked brighter.
"I remember thinking with all the electric lights how could anyone differentiate between day and night. I also remember being amazed by color television and the amount of cars. In Vietnam there were lots of bicycles and motorcycles and not as many lights," she said.
Two days later Phan arrived in Toledo and looked to get a job, go back to school and get married.
"I was scared of everything. How do I live here? How do I survive here? What will I do for a living? Everything was a mystery," she said.
For the first few years, Phan found herself on welfare and working at fast-food restaurants while acclimating herself to American culture. Then out of nowhere, her sponsor asked her to marry him.
"We did not plan on getting married. I didn't know him. In sponsoring me, he was just doing a favor for his sister. The whole marriage situation just happened," said Phan, now the proud mother of Liem Le, a school teacher, and Daniel Le, a recent college graduate. "After I got married, I was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, but did a lot of volunteer work at my sons' schools and the local hospital. When Daniel started first grade I went back to school as well."
Phan, who has a master's degree in Information Systems Engineering from Western International University in Tempe, Ariz., said that through all the hard times she just kept telling herself that she could do it. Only once did she doubt herself.
"The only time when I didn't think I could make it was when I had to take English 101 and 102 in college," she said.
With not enough foreign students enrolled in the small college, the institution could not put together a remedial English class, so Phan and others like her were on their own.
"I passed English 101 and I started 102 with the help of a friend, Dr. Sheldon. I still stay in touch with her. She is my angel. At the time, I told her I give up. I cannot do it. It is so difficult," said Phan. "She said she would be my mentor and tutor. She helped me get through that rough period. If not for her I would have given up the school."
Phan, who became a U.S. citizen in 1989, still visits her family in Vietnam.
Starting her federal career in 2005 at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Phan said she knows that all things are possible with faith and hard work.
"Your will is stronger than your mind," Phan said. "I feel the U.S. is still the land of opportunity. I have had a chance to go back to school to finish my education, something I may not have been able to do in Vietnam. I am very grateful for what I have, which I have worked hard for, and to be able to live the American dream."