‘More laughter than tears’

November 24, 2007

‘More laughter than tears’


Last Modified: 9/1/2007 6:40 AM

Vietnamese ex-refugees recall Okie college days

Straight out of a Vietnamese refugee camp in 1975, 25 people ages 18 to 25 made Claremore Junior College their first American home.

Ten of them, plus a few more refugees who came to the school after the first group, will reunite Saturday for the first time in 30 years at their college, which has become Rogers State University.

These graduates went on to get bachelor’s, medical, dental and business degrees, but the school reunion they care about most is this one. They all assumed, when they fled South Vietnam in 1975, that they would have to give up education and get jobs.

But Claremore Junior College President Richard Mosier showed up at the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Ark., interviewed about 300 people and chose 25 to come to the college. The students received work-study jobs, financial aid and sponsors who became like parents and helped them adjust to a new culture and learn English.

Nam Le, an engineer who lives in Orange County, Calif., said the chance at education was “paradise.”

Education was so important to the Vietnamese that a “family would sacrifice everything for the child to go to school,” said fellow
graduate John Bui, an accountant who lives in Anaheim, Calif.

The 25 students became instant friends. At Claremore Junior College, the men went fishing together at the pond on campus, and the women talked and sewed together, they said.

“Do you remember the first meal we had at Claremore Junior College?” Bui asked several other graduates who gathered Friday at the Tulsa home of organizer Xuan Pham.

“Fried chicken,” Hanh Nguyen said, laughing. She is a financial analyst who lives in San Jose, Calif.

“Fried chicken, corn and mashed potatoes,” Bui said, describing the food as excellent.

Le remembered being treated so well at the college and crying for his relatives who were still in Vietnam and did not have enough food.

After dinner, he said, he would stare at the sky, imagine his home far away and wonder what his family was doing. Many of the students wouldn’t get to see their relatives for five, 10 or 15 years, he said.

Gathered with her friends Friday, Nguyen asked, “Remember the time we went to the rodeo, and we had to stand up for the national anthem?”

“We cried,” she said. “We realized we lost our country.”

The students’ sponsors gave them a sense of security and hope, said Pham, who works with her husband at a medical clinic in Tulsa. Pham’s sponsor went as far as helping her parents and brother get to the U.S.

When Pham was a student, her English was only good enough to tell her sponsor “thank you,” but now, at the reunion, the graduates will be eloquent in thanking their sponsors, professors and others who helped them.

The students worked hard at Claremore Junior College in recognition of the opportunity given them, Pham said. Her husband, Dr. Trung Pham, who also attended the college, joined the Army out of appreciation for the country.

Such generosity, Xuan Pham said, the students learned from Oklahomans.

Before the reunion even began, the classmates were planning future reunions — perhaps in California or at a resort.

Le vowed to keep in touch. “Now it’s more laughter than tears,” he said.

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