Returning to the Red Cross

Returning to the Red Cross

Van’s family was no stranger to conflict, migration, and family separation. Following the fall of Saigon, he, his sisters, and mother fled Vietnam. They were supposed to leave with the rest of the family, but in the chaos consuming the days after the fall, there was no time to question, only run. Van and his family eventually made it onto a rickety boat where the fear of capsizing was constant until they were rescued at sea and brought to the United States as refugees.

While they worked hard to adjust to their new life in the US, the rest of their family was never far from mind. Van constantly worried about his older brother and father, both who had close ties with the South Vietnamese government. The family turned to the Red Cross in the hopes that they would be able to locate their missing loved ones. Days turned to weeks, which turned to months. Then one day they received a call - the Red Cross found Van’s brother.

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Fall of Saigon: One Woman's Harrowing Tale with a Happy Ending

This year last month marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to The People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Many people remember the striking images of people evacuating from Saigon and South Vietnam on April 29th and 30th.

Thu-Thuy Truong, Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter and Restoring Family Links Advocate, was 13 at the time and one of thousands of Vietnamese who fled on April 30. The Red Cross chapter in Denver, Colorado welcomed Thu-Thuy Truong as a guest speaker to talk about her experience and how the Red Cross helped reconnect her family with their father, from whom they were separated during the incident. Her story is both harrowing and inspiring.

In this video, she shares an abridged version of her story. 

For more stories from the Colorado and Wyoming Region of the American Red Cross, please click here.

For more information on the reconnecting families services of the Red Cross, please visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.

Former Refugee Shares her Story of Separation and Red Cross Reconnection

 Thu-Thuy Truong with her brother, Sy, her sister, Tiffany, and a friend at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Thu-Thuy Truong with her brother, Sy, her sister, Tiffany, and a friend at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Speech given by Thu-Thuy Truong on April 30, 2014 at Vietnamese American Roundtable's 39th Commemoration of Black April.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank the Vietnamese American Roundtable for inviting me here tonight. It is my honor to speak to you on behalf of my family and the American Red Cross. I would like to share with you my family’s journey to America, the Red Cross, and the lessons learned from that fateful day, Black April.

It was 39 years ago today, April 30, 1975 that my mom and her five children, including myself, became some of the first Vietnamese boat people fleeing from an island south of Vietnam named Phu Quoc. On that same day, in the capital city of Saigon, my father was standing outside the US Embassy amongst thousands of people. He was unable to get in, watching the last of the US helicopters depart from the roof.

Around noon, while General Duong Van Minh was on the radio announcing his surrender, my mother was negotiating with the local fisherman to take all six of us out to open sea. We soon came upon an American cargo ship named Challenger. The Challenger was huge, like the ship in the movie Captain Phillips, with hundreds of boats of all sizes surrounding it.

Although there was no gun fire, it was chaotic with everyone scrambling, jumping from the outside boats towards the ship. I was thirteen years old, carrying piggyback my eight year old brother, Sy. At one point, I jumped onto the side wall of a boat landing on a thin ledge with just enough space for my feet to stand. My arms reached out wide, grasping the wall like Spiderman. A bang rang in my ears as my head slammed on the boat’s wall, then a second bang as Sy’s head also hit the wall above me. Although I could not breathe due to my little brother’s frightful clutch upon my neck, I was relieved to realize that we did not fall backwards into the undulating waters, avoiding being crushed between boats.

Initially, the only way to board the ship was a single rope ladder. The crew quickly retracted the ladder seeing that mobs of people were swarming the ship and falling into the ocean. Finally the ship’s crew lowered a makeshift wooden rig down to the water’s surface, which allowed small groups to climb onboard at a time. Someone with a bullhorn barked out warnings to everyone to stay calm and instructed women and children to get on first.

At dusk, soon after we got on, the rig was abruptly pulled up. I can never forget that loud roar from the crowd echoing the heart wrenching cries from what seemed like a thousand people below. I peered over to see terrified looks of separated family members. We were relieved that our family was intact, yet full of apprehension about my father back in Saigon. Eventually, the ship took us to Guam, and we were subsequently transported to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, where my mom registered with the Red Cross in search of my father.

My father miraculously escaped that day. He went to the Saigon River filled with loss and desperation, he climbed onto a boat and then another small cargo boat, eventually making his way to Wake Island, where he also registered with the Red Cross. Even in an era before cell phones and the internet, the Red Cross was able to reunite our family in Fort Chaffee three months later.

My extended family was not as fortunate. In 1979, my aunt Vi, her husband Huan, their son, and uncle, left by boat and were never found, presumed lost at sea. On a separate escape route, my aunt Thanh, husband Hung, and their three children experienced multiple harrowing pirate attacks, extreme hunger, heat exposure at open sea and on remote islands, until they arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand.

Although our own Black April journey was a breeze in comparison, it was a pivotal journey which changed all of us in significant ways. The experience prepared my family to cope with challenges after leaving Fort Chaffee, living in a poor and rough neighborhood. Whenever problems arose, such as getting punched by mean kids for no reasons, receiving eviction notices, being robbed, etc… my mom would say: "We lost everything on April 30 and survived until now, we can overcome this."

As a daughter, I would like to say to my parents and the elders: Thank you for risking everything, leaving your home, family, country, to give me a better future. I feel your pain and suffering, but hope that you will also see the “sweet” part of this bittersweet day. We have been given a new life with the generous support of this great nation. We have overcame many obstacles and challenges. Let’s use this experience to find common ground, to unite us as Vietnamese-Americans, and to work together for a better community.

As a mother, I would like to say to my children and the younger generation: Thank you for being here to learn more about your heritage. Understand our humble refugee beginnings, and do not take your comfortable life for granted. Cherish all the opportunities that you’re given, to study hard and pursue your dreams. Strive to achieve not just material wealth, but wealth in culture, in knowledge, and especially in compassion.

As an individual, Black April taught me a lesson in humility. I am so blessed that my entire family was saved by the ship that day. Double blessed that my father was saved. I have the honor now to volunteer with the American Red Cross, working on the very same program that united my family. The Restoring Family Links program helps find family members separated by disaster, conflict, migration, or other humanitarian emergency. It doesn’t take much time or money, but it is priceless to those who are still looking for their loved ones. By informing others about this program, we are forming a valuable chain of information, a chain of hope, and best of all, a chain of humanity.

I sincerely thank you for this opportunity tonight.

Red Cross Reconnects Brothers Separated During Vietnam War

Story by Robert Pollock, Southeastern Pennsylvania Region, Emergency Communications Volunteer and RFL Caseworker

In July 2011, the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania received a tracing request for Mark Chew from the Vietnamese Red Cross in Hanoi, Vietnam.  An American man, whose last known address was in Wallingford, PA, had adoped Mark in 1970.  His brother in Vietnam was trying to reestablish contact.

We were supplied with a large amount of search material by NHQ, however, the name of the person being sought was relatively common and the material proved to be of little help. After pursuing all these leads and getting nowhere, we were unsure how to proceed further. We started to search for the adopted father next. When that failed, we felt like we were at a dead end. As we thought more about the situation, it occurred to us that the father might be dead since he appeared to be a middle-aged man in the photograph we had from 1970. We found that the local obituaries are archived at the Ridley Township Public Library. A telephone call to the librarian proved to be very valuable. She searched their index for the father’s name and found two obituaries which she sent to us. That was the key to unlock the mystery.

In one of the obituaries dated June 2003, two sons were mentioned. One was Mark Chew with no identifiable address and the other one was listed as living in a small town in Maryland. We searched his name and the town on the Internet and easily found contact information for him. The brother was interested in our search and told us that while he had not been in touch recently with Mark, he had previously owned a restaurant in Maryland. We looked up the restaurant and Mark was no longer the owner. We then went to “The Wayback Machine” (from Rocky and Bullwinkle) or archive.org and looked at the past iterations for the restaurant website.  In the April 2009 edition, we found Mark listed as the owner with a photograph and the story of his early years in Vietnam.

A call to this restaurant, gave us new information that Mark now owned another restaurant on the Eastern Shore. We called and the phone was answered by Mark himself. That was October 5, 2011. The lost was finally found!

When we explained our search to Mark, he was silent at first. That is not an unusual reaction to the kind of news that we deliver. We recognized his reluctance to reconnect with family after 40 years of separation and his concerns about the validity of the search. We told him that we would send him the photos and information that we had and call him back in a week to see how he wanted to proceed. The following week, he agreed to share his contact information, which we forwarded to the National Headquarters of the American Red Cross to send back to Vietnam.

Normally, our story ends there. In this case, Mark contacted me in November of 2013 to tell me that he has established a frequent email relationship with his siblings. He then had plans to go back to Vietnam with his wife for 3 weeks in January 2014. The success of the search after much frustration is a great encouragement for caseworkers. The follow up story is like icing on the cake.