One Man's Refugee Family: How Dick Swanson's Vietnamese Relatives Have Fared
On the night of a new moon in Bethesda, Md., Mama Ngo quietly stepped into the backyard of her adopted home. There, in a traditional Vietnamese ritual before a family altar, she bowed her head and gave thanks for the safety of her family.
Only one month before, Mama, 58, five of her six children and their families had fled Saigon with the help of photographer Dick Swanson, 40, her American son-in-law (PEOPLE, May 19). At first, all 12 members of the rescued family lived in the three-bedroom Swanson home in suburban Washington, D.C. Now, after eight bewildering, exhilarating months in the U.S., most of them have settled into their own lives.
They are among the 140,653 refugees who fled to the U.S. after the Communist takeover of Vietnam. About 1,500 of these decided to return to Vietnam, and another 6,500 moved on to 27 other countries. About 2,800 Vietnamese remain in camps at Ft. Chaffee, Ark. and Indiantown Gap, Pa.; but they should be relocated within the month. “Some are bitter,” says Swanson of the refugees. “All are sad. Most will adapt.”
Living with Swanson, his Vietnamese wife, Germaine, 38, and their two children are Mama and three of her sons, Albert, 30, Bernard, 34, and Long, 20. All are permanent residents.
“Mama watches her grandchildren grow up,” says Swanson. Lanky Philip, 13, Germaine’s son, is polishing his half-forgotten Vietnamese on Grandma. “Justin, 4, speaks no Vietnamese and Mama speaks no English,” explains Dick, “but somehow with that special chemistry between grandchildren and grandparents, they communicate.”
Albert and Bernard, who were college professors in Vietnam, spend three nights a week at a Virginia school to learn computer programming. The U.S. government pays almost 30 percent of their $2,655 tuition. Bernard also works the midnight shift in a Washington bank, sorting canceled checks. “It’s a mind-numbing job,” says Swanson. Albert is night manager for a small Washington hotel and moonlights weekends in a gas station. Their brother, Long, works evenings at the same station while he studies by day at Maryland’s Walt Whitman Senior High School. “The brothers are single and gently complain about their social life,” says Swanson. “But they’re young and handsome and have cars and a little money now, and things should change.”
Their sister, Gabrielle, her husband, Ba, a former South Vietnamese air force colonel, and their three children have settled in Draper, Utah with some help from the Mormon Church. Ba, who once commanded 4,500 men, now works as a management trainee for a chain store and earns $650 a month. Gabrielle has a job assembling parts for electronic calculators. The couple’s three children are all in public schools and doing fine.
A third branch of the family, brother René, his wife, Lien Chi, and their two children have settled in Paris. For the moment they are living in a Jesuit home in a northwest suburb of Paris. René, a high school teacher in Saigon, has found work as a telephone operator.
The Ngo family in Bethesda has received food, clothing, housing and legal advice from government agencies, churches, friends and even complete strangers. They’ve encountered little hostility. “One caller wondered why in hell I’d travel 23,000 miles to collect my mother-in-law,” laughs Swanson.
“The future is uncertain,” says Swanson. “Psychological problems are sure to come. My 11th-hour trip to Saigon last April to bring the family out was one of the most intense emotional experiences of my life. But as intense as it was, I wasn’t leaving behind my home and my country. Please wish them well.”