By Ruby Thomas, Special to The Record
More than three decades have passed since Tung Thanh Nguyen was released “barely alive” from a labor concentration camp in North Vietnam. But the memories seared into his mind still cause him nightmares today.
Nguyen was one of four refugees honored at the Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Migration and Refugees Services inaugural fundraising banquet held June 27 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Louisville.
About 300 people attended the event entitled “Celebration of Spirit and Success.”
“I am humbled by the outpouring of support from the community,” said Elisabeth Walker, associate director for communications and development at Catholic Charities. In the almost 40 years the organization has been operating in Louisville, that outpouring of support has cradled and comforted thousands of refugees like Nguyen and allowed them to rebuild their lives on stable ground.
Nguyen was a first lieutenant in the South Vietnam Air Force from October 1968 to April 1975 when the attack on Saigon threw the country into chaos. He was forced to escape without his family. While trying to make his way home months later, he was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and imprisoned for four years in a labor concentration camp. After his release, he and his family fled the country in hopes of starting anew.
Nguyen told those who attended the event that while living in a refugee camp in Indonesia, he dreamed of living in the United States of America.
“We could have gone to any other country, but we dreamt of coming to America, so we stayed in Indonesia for 13 months till our dream came true,” he recalled. In June 1981, Nguyen and his family arrived in Louisville where the kindness of strangers allowed them to shed the past and start over, he said.
“I’m indebted to compassionate Americans who took me and my family in and helped us through the darkest moment of our lives,” he told the Crowne Plaza crowd.
Former Congressman Romano L. Mazzoli, who represented Kentucky’s third congressional district from 1971 to 1995, was the keynote speaker for the event.
Mazzoli, along with Senator Alan Simpson, was the architect of the first major piece of national immigration legislation.
The former congressman shared his family’s immigrant story with those present and reminded them that the immigration issue is, above all, a moral one. “We tend to look at immigration as an economic and social issue, but at the heart of it is a moral issue,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the strangers in our midst,” he continued.
Mazzoli insisted that this country needs immigrants and refugees.
“These are people who bring vision, vitality and talent that we can use,” he said. “We need that now desperately because we are in a global economy and have to be able to compete.”
He talked about the challenges and successes that are innate in working with refugees. The major challenge now is the cutback of government financial support which comes at a time when millions of refugees are waiting to be resettled. On the flip side are the successes like those celebrated by Catholic Charities. “The success is the people who have come here with scant in their pocket and no knowledge of the English language, but who with the help of Catholic Charities have made it,” Mazzoli said.
Mazzoli recognized three other refugees who have found success in their new lives in Louisville. Victor Arroyo, who was a founding member of the Union of
Independent Cuban Journalists, was imprisoned for speaking out against the Castro dictatorship.
Arroyo was deported to Spain in 2010 and made his way to the United States in 2011. In 1998, Nyambol Chol led a group of 100 young South Sudanese on a perilous three month journey to Ethiopia to escape persecution in their native country. She spent the next 11 years living in a refugee camp where her two children were born. In October, 2011 she and her children were resettled in Louisville. Dr. Ivan Ljubic lived in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina and immigrated to Louisville through the assistance of Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services. While studying for the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, he worked odd jobs — among them as a banquet server at the Seelbach Hotel.
The event also served as a forum to thank the organizations that have helped the Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services find employment for those it serves. The Jefferson County Public Schools adult education program and Fabricated Metals were honored with the Community Partnership Award. The event was sponsored by 17 local parishes and 17 local businesses. (See additional story on immigration on page 2.)