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Rose Robertson | Photography by Jim Luning | May 2016

When I came to America, my heart opened

From Saigon to Lansing's Vietnamese Catholic Community - a refugee's story

With a smile as wide as the Upper Peninsula, Kinh Nguyen exclaims, “I love Michigan! My wife and I chose Michigan, specifically Lansing, because of Michigan State University. A former Catholic Vietnamese president lived and worked around there. I was very impressed with the education he witnessed, and wanted that for my children. We also had a friend, Dr. Trinh Nguyen, living here who could sponsor our family through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB].”

Kinh, a cradle Catholic, lived in Go Den, Vietnam, until age 5, when he, his parents and sisters moved to a Catholic hamlet, Go-san. “When I was 11, I asked my mom and dad to send me to the Congregation of St. Joseph, a monastery in the city of Nhatrang. I was there for seven years and, just prior to my first vows, I decided I didn’t want a monk’s life. I studied geography and history for four years at the university in Saigon, and then was conscripted into the South Vietnamese Army, where I served as a first lieutenant.

“When South Vietnam fell on April 30, 1975, the Communist Party sent me to their prison, which they called a re-education camp. After one year, I tried to escape, was captured and held in solitary for three months. After being released from solitary, they shackled me in a wooden box for another 16 months. When I was removed from there, I couldn’t walk, but eventually regained my strength. While in prison, we were forced to do hard labor, starved, beaten and degraded. We didn’t deserve to be tortured like that.

“My faith is what kept me alive during those years. The only personal possession I was allowed to keep was a rosary my mother had given me; I was so surprised they let me keep it. In reciting that rosary every day, God took away my fear, giving me strength to survive.”

Kinh remained a political prisoner for five years, seven months and three days.

Released from the re-education camp on Sept. 4, 1980, the communists forced him to join in their cooperative agriculture system, where Kinh worked hard in the rice fields. He married the love of his life, Duoc, whom he met in 1971 and had waited for him during his imprisonment. Their marriage blessed them with four children: two sons and two daughters. It was their children’s future that became the impetus to immigrate to America. There were no opportunities for them if they remained in Vietnam; they’d been assigned Class D status in a communist society. In 1990, the family applied to the Humanitarian Operation Program, a program created to aid in the resettlement of Vietnamese political prisoners.

“In 1991, we were interviewed by an American delegation and accepted into the program. The USCCB [Migration and Refugee Services] arranged both our interview and our evacuation date. On Jan. 7, 1992, my wife and I and our four children, ages 10, 6, 4 and 3, boarded a plane in Saigon and began the journey to our freedom. Within three days, on Friday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m., we were in Lansing, staying at the home of our sponsor family. One week later, Refugee Services [of St. Vincent Catholic Charities] rented a house for us in the area. Refugee Services helped us apply for assistance, gave us the things necessary to move into our home and helped me find a job. It had been our dream to come to Lansing and it came true.”

All six members of the Nguyen family became American citizens in 1997.

“I was 43 years old when I came here, so I knew myself, my limitations and had confidence in my abilities. That, plus the help of our sponsor family, Refugee Services and the Vietnamese Catholic Community (VCC) of Lansing, made the transition fairly easy. Our biggest challenge was the English language. At that time, the VCC was part of St. Mary Cathedral Parish. Father Joseph Tran visited our family to see what we needed, helped us join the parish and introduced us to other families. We received such a warm welcome, and they helped us in so many ways. I will always remember their kindness to us.

“In 1998, St. Andrew Dung-Lac Parish began and it was like being home in Vietnam. The Vietnamese parish is not only a marvelous gift from God, but also a place to sustain Vietnamese tradition, culture and the native language for consecutive generations.” Kinh believes that giving is as important as receiving. “In 2002, I was voted the chair of the [parish] council and served three terms until 2012. For the next three years, I led the Vietnamese program and now, in addition to helping with cleaning, I help with first Saturday prayer. Fifteen years ago, when there was a large influx of Vietnamese immigrants, I shared my experiences with them to help them in their transition.

“I am closer to God because of my experiences. When I was in prison, though my faith remained deep in my heart, my experience closed me in some ways, and I became a very strict man. Sometimes, I even scared my wife and children. When I came to America, my heart opened and I began to change. It became easier for me to listen to people and understand their feelings then when I was in Vietnam. My faith was and is always growing.”

A gentle, humble man, Kinh retired three years ago from Quality Dairy, where he had worked since 1995. He spends his days fostering his health and inner peace, serving the parish and giving gratitude to God for many blessings. During three daily prayer periods, he gives thanks that all four of his children earned college degrees, (two from MSU), have good jobs and have their freedom. He gives thanks for the many people who helped them not only exit Vietnam, but resettle to and absorb a new way of life. He gives thanks for his wife and their 35-year marriage. “I give thanks that America is a country giving anyone many good opportunities and chances to make their lives better. American people are friendly and so helpful to others,” he explains

And, as with most lives, there are also some regrets. “My mom and sisters are still in Vietnam; my dad died in 1979 while I was in prison. I worry about my mom, but she wants to stay there and be buried by my dad. All four of our kids work far away – two in New Jersey, one in Virginia and one in Texas – so it is just my wife and I in Michigan. I wish I had spent more time with our children as teenagers, helping strengthen their faith and showing them just how much we love them.”

The paradox is that Kinh sees his regrets, the trials he endured and the hardships life rendered as gifts. “I thank God for my challenges, and the grace given to me to overcome them,” he says. “Because of those challenges, I am a kinder person, my faith is deeper. If we keep the faith in God as Jesus taught us, we will be led in the right direction. If everyone did this, we would all be happier and more peaceful.”

Learn More

St. Vincent Catholic Charities is the only resettlement program for adult individuals and families in the Lansing area. Call 517-323-4734, EXT. 1424 to learn of the many ways you can help.