Former Refugee Helps Reunite Families

By Andy Newton, Silicon Valley Chapter, Volunteer Writer

Thu-Thuy Truong, Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter and Restoring Family Links Advocate

Thu-Thuy Truong, Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter and Restoring Family Links Advocate

Thu-Thuy Truong volunteers with the American Red Cross in order to help others in the same way the organization helped her as a child. “I joined the Red Cross because I felt it was my duty to give back, after all that they have done for me,” said Thu-Thuy.

Having fled South Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Thu-Thuy found her father again halfway around the world in the United States, with the assistance of the Restoring Family Links program, a free Red Cross service that helps reunite families separated by disaster, conflict, migration, or other humanitarian emergencies.

Thu-Thuy was only 13-years-old when Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. Her father was serving at the time as a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese government and had to remain in the capital, even as troops were closing in. He made sure his wife and children had a chance to escape the impending danger.

“Three weeks before the Fall of Saigon, a lot of North Vietnamese were heading to the city,” remembered Thu-Thuy. “My father arranged to have my mother and the rest of my family sent to an island off of Vietnam, where my uncle lived. There was chaos everywhere. We were lucky we didn’t have any fighting on the island.”

When the leader of the South Vietnamese government, General Duong Van Minh, surrendered to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975, Thu-Thuy’s mother began to arrange passage off the island, away from the war-torn country. However, it being a small, modest community, means of transport proved inadequate and limited in number. Eventually, Thu-Thuy’s mother located a fisherman who would accept payment to take them on his boat out to open sea. They soon found a U.S. cargo ship, called Challenger. Hoping to reach safety onboard, they approached the vessel, but immediately discovered that they were not alone in their designs.

“There were hundreds of small boats surrounding the ship,” said Thu-Thuy. “Thousands of people were going around, out in the water, trying to find a way on. People were climbing and jumping from boat to boat, falling in the water and drowning. We were just trying to stay together. We didn’t know what to do.”

Finally, at dusk, the ship’s crew lowered a makeshift rig down to the water’s surface, which would allow a limited number of people at a time to climb onboard. “We were about twelve boats out on the outer circle,” Thu-Thuy recalled. “I was carrying my youngest brother. We jumped from boat to boat. It was a miracle we didn’t fall in.”

Thu-Thuy and her family were some of the last ones to get on the ship. “There were still thousands of people out in the water. People were screaming and crying when the crew said they didn’t have any more room. We were lucky we got on that boat.”

The ship took the refugees to Guam, where Thu-Thuy’s family was transferred by military plane to Hawaii and then ultimately to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. When they arrived at Fort Chaffee, they registered with the American Red Cross, in hopes of finding Thu-Thuy’s father, whom they had not seen since before Saigon fell.

Thanks to the efforts of the Red Cross volunteers assisting with the Restoring Family Links program, Thu-Thuy’s father was reunited with his family three months later. He had escaped Vietnam by river, eventually reaching safety on the U.S. territory of Wake Island, where he registered his name with the Red Cross.

Now, years later, Thu-Thuy is working with the very organization that helped bring her family back together. She is the Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter, as well as the recently appointed Chair of the National Restoring Family Links Advocates Group, a select committee organized by the Red Cross national headquarters, composed of volunteers from all over the country. “Our goal is to bring focus to the Restoring Family Links program,” said Thu-Thuy, who has been volunteering with the Red Cross for about a year. 

Among their numerous duties, workers with the Restoring Family Links program go into their local neighborhoods and establish connections with prominent immigrant and ethnic communities, so that, if people become separated from their loved ones halfway around the world, they can more quickly locate family here at home. After Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda devastated parts of Southeast Asia this past November, Thu-Thuy was active in the Vietnamese-American community in the Silicon Valley area to help people who had been displaced in the Philippines.

As Chair of the National Restoring Family Links Advocates Group, Thu-Thuy hopes to further the program’s efforts to forge these support networks within communities across the country, and to raise awareness about all the good work they do every day. On June 20, the United Nations is sponsoring a World Refugee Day, in honor of the courage and perseverance of the men, women, and children who are forced to leave their homes to escape persecution and violence. Thu-Thuy is planning to take the occasion to share the noble mission of their program.

“It feels good to play a small part in bringing a community together and helping people in need,” said Thu-Thuy. “I feel very honored to work with such dedicated people.”