Two young refugees from Vietnam taught us much about life and compassion

We knew nothing about the two Vietnamese refugees we were to meet at the airport except that they were fifteen- and eighteen-year-old boys from the Malaysia Refugee Camp and that we would be responsible for them.

Only a week earlier my husband, Willard, had shown me a small ad in the newspaper: “Sponsors needed for Vietnamese refugees.” We had seen pictures of refugees in magazines and had read about their struggles. We wanted to help.

Early the next morning I called the number listed in the ad. The woman explained that as sponsors we would be expected to help the refugees adjust to our way of life. “You meet them at the airport and find them a place to live,” she said. “Usually this means that you take them into your home for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, until they can be on their own.”

This seemed easy enough. Maybe too easy. “That’s all? Don’t I have to take them to the hospital or anything like that?”

“No. They must be healthy to come into the country.”

We discussed it with our family that evening. Charles, our easygoing university senior, readily accepted the idea; Doug, our seventeen-year-old, was somewhat apprehensive, but acquiesced; nine-year-old Billy thought it was exciting. So we gave our names as sponsors.

Now, as the airplane landed, on this cold day in March 1980, we watched anxiously for our two boys. They were the last passengers off the plane and had large identifying stickers pasted to their clothes. The older boy was looking around in a confused way and the younger boy was half a step behind, staring at the floor. They carried all their belongings in one small bag.

The older one was a slight boy with just the beginnings of a mustache. His face and body were painfully thin. There was a tightness in his face that made me want to put my arms around him and say, “It’s all right. You’re safe now.” The younger one looked twelve years old instead of fifteen.

“They’re so young,” I whispered to Willard.

“I think they’ll be with us longer than a few weeks,” Willard answered.

They looked frightened. Willard stepped forward and took the older boy’s hand. We introduced ourselves. They had trouble saying Mr. and Mrs. Dixon, and I could say only their first names, Vinh and Long.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” said the older boy, smiling and nodding.

I was quite relieved until I discovered that he said “yes, yes” to everything. A representative from the refugee society who spoke Vietnamese checked over the boys’ papers, talked to them, and reassured us that we belonged together.

I could see a problem immediately. These boys were freezing. Vinh wore a sweater and Long wore a windbreaker. Both wore sandals with no stockings. Seeing their feet made me cold. As they followed us to the car, they were shivering but silent.

After taking Willard back to work, the boys and I went to the Social Security office. Vinh and Long could legally work once the applications had been sent in. Then we stopped at a store for shoes and stockings.

I had to pantomime everything. “Stand up. Sit down. Put on stockings. Put on shoes.” Other customers looked at us curiously, but I didn’t care.

“Do they fit?” I asked Vinh out of habit, knowing he didn’t understand me.

“Yes, yes,” he answered, even though he couldn’t stuff his foot into the shoe. I found a larger size and he smiled widely.

As we drove home, it was quiet in the car. “What have we got ourselves into?” I wondered. But I was also excited. There were so many things I could show these boys—and so much to learn from them.

Vinh watched the stores, the homes, the cars and trucks on the freeway. He wanted to see everything. Long fell asleep. I discovered that he usually allowed his older brother to do the worrying, which left him free to accept things as they came along.

“Without any English, how are they going to make it?” I worried, and then caught myself. “That’s Vinh’s role,” I decided as we pulled into the driveway.

“This is your room,” I told the boys as I put their bag on the bed. They were using my daughter’s room while she was away at college. Vinh pointed to himself and his brother, as if he couldn’t believe all this was for them.

“Yes, yes,” I told them.

They slept the rest of the day and the whole day after that. On Saturday they got up long enough to eat a meal, then fell asleep again.

Finally, on Saturday night after they had awakened again, I started to go through clothes that were too small for Douglass and too big for Billy. Most of the slacks, already slim-cut, needed another inch or two taken off the waist. Willard’s sister, Linda, sent over some levis and sweaters. A neighbor sent a stack of beautiful, almost new clothes, including two down coats. With everyone’s help, the boys were fitted out.

As we all sat down to supper on Saturday night, Vinh came to me with his book of familiar sayings in his hand and a big smile on his face. He pointed to what he wanted to tell us.

“I esteem you highly,” it said.

Tears came to my eyes. We would probably never know all the things they had gone through, I realized. I often saw a sadness on Vinh’s face that didn’t need translation.

After dinner we started our first formal learning exercise.

“This is a fork,” I told them.

“Fo” they repeated.

“K,” I told them, emphasizing the final sound. “K-k-k-.” I touched my throat, showing them where the sound came from.

“K,” they tried. I discovered that “k” and “g” are difficult for them to say, especially at the end of a word. If I touched my throat they said the sound.

I went to the sink and said “sink.” How many words end in the letter “k”? Now for the difficult instruction: “Take the fork to the sink.” I said each word clearly, emphasizing the final “k” in the two key words.

They didn’t understand, so Billy did it for them. Vinh caught on first and took his fork to the sink. He explained it to Long. We continued with spoons, knives, plates, dishes, and glasses. It took us half an hour to clear the table.

Then we did the same with the rooms of our house. “Front room, kitchen, bathroom, my bedroom, your bedroom.” We made a game of it, with Billy sneaking the answers to them sometimes while I pretended not to notice, or if it was too obvious, to scold. There was a lot of laughing. Vinh started to lose the tightness in his face.

While Billy and Long wrestled in the front room and chased after our dog, I brought out a game of Chinese Checkers because it needed few instructions. Long, the younger of the two, easily beat all of us by planning each move far in advance.

On Monday, we enrolled Long in the closest high school—which had about 2,000 students. Vinh went with us, keeping his younger brother close to him. I thought of Long’s inability to communicate and was afraid for him.

“We have two other Vietnamese students in the school,” the counselor told us. “They are doing very well here. Do you speak English?” he addressed Long.

Vinh answered, smiling and nodding, “Yes, yes.”

I smiled to myself, knowing what would follow.

“Good,” the counselor said, “What classes has Long taken?”

Vinh smiled again, and nodded.

“They don’t speak English,” I grinned.

“None at all?”

“They know knife, fork, spoon, plate, dish, and glass.

“Oh.” The counselor reached for the telephone to call the district office.

We found that one school in the area had one whole wing devoted to Oriental students—but it was only for elementary-age children. Another school district close by was trying to allocate one school for foreign-speaking students of all ages, but it was still in the planning stages. Since there was no other school for Long to attend, the counselor called Bik, another Vietnamese student, to help with the translation. Through her help I discovered that Vinh was the oldest child of nine and he and Long were the only ones in his family able to escape. Their mother and father and the rest of their brothers and sisters were still in Saigon.

“I will put Long in Mr. Erickson’s special class for difficult students,” the counselor told us. He also put him in business math, gym, art, and a social studies class.

We now had Long enrolled in school, but Vinh was still apprehensive. Bik told me that Vinh was afraid for his brother. “He will be safe,” I told Vinh. “I will come for him after school.”

As we left the school, I remembered how I felt when I had put my own children in kindergarten. Would Long really be all right? Would he be able to cope with the lunchroom, with the teasing of the other students? This is silly to think this way, I tried to tell myself. After all, Long had survived a war. Surely he could survive high school.

Vinh let us know that he wanted to work and be independent. I contacted a rest home that needed help in their laundry.

“We have never had a foreign-speaking employee,” the manager told me.

“Vinh is very intelligent. He’ll catch on quickly,” I reassured her.

“How will we tell him what to do?”

“Show him.”

I could see her hesitation. “If you need me, I’ll come with him the first day and interpret,” I offered, amazed at my own boldness. I didn’t speak a word of Vietnamese. We were still having a hard time with “pass the potatoes.”

We went to the rest home’s laundry. The supervisor looked at Vinh with apprehension. As we stood talking, Vinh watched the others fold the sheets and towels. He picked up a towel and tried to do it.

“Do it this way,” a girl said, showing him the proper way. When I left, he was working with the others, all of them watching him carefully and giving directions. I wasn’t needed here. The manager saw that immediately.

The next day I took Vinh to the bus stop and showed him how to take the bus to work, explaining to the driver where to let him off. Then I followed in the car. I pointed the direction he needed to take to get to work when he got off the bus. After work, I took him back to the bus stop and went through the same procedure.

We had to take Vinh and Long into the Health Department for a physical examination and more shots. They were immunized for measles, mumps, diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio. They were also checked for intestinal parasites. There was an interpreter, and Vinh told her that his teeth were hurting him. I was glad I had already made a dental appointment for him for the following week.

Vinh wanted to be responsible for himself and his brother, financially and otherwise, but he ran into a major difficulty. The dentist found that Vinh’s teeth were filled with infection. They were rotting, and the infection had filled the bones and broken through the roof of his mouth. Some of his teeth had been broken off and two of them had only the roots left. Vinh was afraid of the debt involved, and I couldn’t blame him, but he did have to take care of the infected teeth now. They couldn’t wait. The refugee fund would help with the cost up to $200, but the boys would be expected to pay it back. Willard and I offered to let them stay with us until the dental work was paid for.

One day Vinh asked to be taken to a Vietnamese grocery store in town. I thought he wanted to meet a friend, but after I got him there, I realized he wanted to stay at the store and talk to people, anyone, in his own language. At first I was upset, but then I watched him as he walked around the store, touching familiar food and looking at magazines and newspapers written in his language.

“He’s homesick,” I told Willard. We bought him a newspaper and twenty-five pounds of Vietnamese rice. Finally we left him there with the understanding that he would phone when he wanted to come home. The owners, who were Vietnamese and spoke both languages, were happy to help. Vinh stayed six hours. Long had gone with us to the store, but he didn’t want to stay. He wanted to come back and watch cartoons with Billy.

I sensed that Vinh needed a place of his own near other Vietnamese.

Two families, friends of ours, had also sponsored Vietnamese refugees. In fact, one family has helped more than thirty people. They invited our boys to a Vietnamese social. All of the families they have sponsored get together regularly so that they can enjoy the companionship of their own people. I hoped this would help overcome Vinh’s homesickness.

The evening was a success with about forty people there, from small children to adults. I found myself seated on the floor trying to teach five Vietnamese teenage boys how to play Chinese Checkers. Again, Long won the game.

Through Tam Le, a Vietnamese man who had been in the country about four years, I asked Vinh how he and his brother escaped. We found out that the boys’ father had paid $6000 for each member of his family to escape. The boys reached the boat and spent many hungry, thirsty days on the ocean before they found refuge. The rest of the family is still trying to leave, but it is very difficult. Vinh told us that his aim was to support himself and Long and send the rest of his paycheck back to his family to help them come to America.

During the weeks they were both with us, Vinh wrote many letters in the evenings and telephoned his friends, spending much time establishing new ties with Vietnamese people. He often wandered away from us, trying to find communities of Vietnamese, homesickness written on his face.

In June 1980 Vinh wanted to live with friends, and he made plans to move. We realized that if Long stayed with us, he would be able to finish school, but if he went with Vinh he would have to drop out of school and work. We talked it over with the boys and Vinh decided, “He will stay with you.” Since that time Vinh has moved to California where he is working, learning English, and enjoying his Vietnamese friends. I am proud of him—and of his ability to earn his own living and pay his own bills.

Long has become a member of our family. He has completed his junior year of high school with a high B average and wants to attend the University of Utah when he graduates. He excels in math and art. He loves soccer, basketball, hamburgers, fried chicken, and chocolate cake with thick frosting—but he still prefers rice and egg roll.

He is getting letters regularly from his father who is still in Vietnam, and he has his father’s permission to be baptized. His father writes, “Obey your sponsors. What they say is true and good. You must not be a problem to them. Study hard in school, cut your hair, go to church. Forget about us. We are half the earth away.”

In every way but one he is obedient to his father’s wishes: he studies and gets good grades in school, attends the Vietnamese branch of the Church, and cuts his hair when I remind him, but with a groan, “Oh, mom!”

The one thing he cannot do is forget his family. He has a parttime job and uses his paycheck to send packages home. And in the evening he pulls out his packet of letters from home and reads longingly of his other family in Vietnam.

I’m sure I could say to both boys now, and they would understand me, “I esteem you highly.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Snow

Janice Dixon, mother of six, is editor of the newspaper in her Salt Lake City ward.