My Family in Vietnam
Refugee Camps of Malaysia
As Told By: Cuong Huynh
In September of 1979, my family and I left the refugee camps of Malaysia to travel to the airport. There, airplanes were on hand to fly families like ours to the United States and other western countries, including Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Britain, where families and organizations sponsored refugees from Southeast Asia. I was so excited to leave the refugee camps!
Entering the Pan American Airways airplane was my first experience of ever sitting on an airplane seat, much less of flying. I told myself on the airplane that I was finally leaving the horrible refugee camp, where there was no future and no sanitized living conditions. I was going somewhere where I hoped I would not have to scratch my legs and arms any further from the mosquito bites. How lucky I felt to be leaving those deplorable living conditions. I felt relieved and grateful to leave the negative and filthy living conditions of the refugee camps and go to a different country. No more waiting for UNICEF canned goods. No more living in tin shelters. No more going to the toilet in putrid and filthy outdoor pits. No more bug bites from mosquitos with nothing to ease the itching in the unsanitary, unhealthy refugee camps.
Once we landed at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in the latter part of September 1979, one of my father’s relatives picked us up. My father knew him from his days in Vietnam, and they were related as distant cousins. Our family stayed in his house for several days until we found our own rental apartment in Los Angeles, California.
Our new home was a one-bedroom apartment in an old apartment complex near downtown Los Angeles. It was a low-income neighborhood called “the barrio.”
Our apartment had a small kitchen and a small bathroom. We had been unable to bring anything with us from Vietnam because we were refugees fleeing our native country, and we were impoverished. My parents slept in the bedroom, and my four older siblings and I shared the living room. My sister Jennifer had the couch to herself while my older brothers and I slept together on a queen-sized bed. I used to wear my older brothers’ “hand-me-down” clothes because my parents could not afford new clothes for me to wear. Even as a seven-year-old boy, I realized that my family and I were struggling financially to make ends meet.
At seven years old, I went to second grade in a public elementary school in Los Angeles County. As a new refugee to the United States, I had to learn English and take “English as a Second Language” courses. The teachers would encourage me to say different words in English, such as “safety pin,” “books,” “pencils,” “clothes,” and “backpacks,” to build my English vocabulary and knowledge. The learning process was very interesting to me because I did not learn about any academic English subjects when I was a refugee in Malaysia. I arrived in the United States with few English vocabulary words to fully integrate into the American society.
During those years of limited financial resources, my mother learned to shop scrupulously with food stamps. She made sure we stayed within our family’s budget. When my mother and I went shopping at a nearby grocery market, she would take out food stamps to pay. Because we had little cash, I could not buy any extra items. We did not have enough money for non-essential food items like bubble gum, a small toy, or a candy. I remember asking, “Mom, can I get this bubble gum?” And my mother would respond, “No, we do not have money for that. We are tight for this month. Maybe next month.” I said, “OK” and put the bubble gum back on the shelf. While I wanted these items, I understood that my family did not have a lot of money to spend on such things.
Because of my impoverished socio-economic background as a child, I wanted to work hard to get out of poverty. As I grew up, I knew that I needed to study hard in school to have a professional career and build financial freedom. Thanks to my older siblings, parents, and caring mentors, I have been able to achieve my goal of becoming a professional and to found a non-profit that serves and empowers immigrant and refugee youth from low-wealth backgrounds across America. The non-profit aims to teach servant leadership skills and community service engagement to the immigrant and refugee youth, especially those coming from low-wealth backgrounds.