Commentary: My dad embraced danger to save his life

Nghia Tran, right, and his two brothers in the Hong Kong refugee camp in 1978. | Courtesy Selina Tran

As a child in Salt Lake City, I’d bring artwork and Father’s Day cards home from school, and my dad always said “good job!” But soon I’d find them crumpled in the trash. I was so disappointed.

It wasn’t until years later when I learned more about his life in Vietnam and his harrowing escape that I understood why my dad easily let go of material things.

At 25, my dad had never known anything but war.

He remembers digging bomb shelters and hiding in them as routine grade school activities. As a teenager, he sold cigarettes on the street to help feed the family. The Vietnamese-American War began a year after his birth and, when the war ended in 1975, his parents and 12 siblings had survived against all odds. But their relief was short-lived.

Fighting between the border countries of Cambodia and China escalated and relations with China and Vietnam became more hostile. The Vietnamese government started expelling people to prison camps and my dad, who’s ethnically Chinese, feared for his life.

It was time to escape.

My dad, along with several other members of the community, bought a boat, stole gas to power it, hired a driver who knew the way to Hong Kong and collected money and jewelry to bribe officials to let their boat leave the harbor.

In the early morning, my dad, his parents and three brothers lowered themselves into the small boat. His nine other siblings stayed behind, hoping to follow later.

My dad remembers the boat tightly packed with hundreds of others; their hands tied to the sides so they wouldn’t fall out. They didn’t know where they would land but they clung to a rumor that Hong Kong was taking refugees. They had no compass, no radio and no idea if they would reach a safe destination, but they were willing to die trying.

They had been on the boat for 31 days when they reached Hong Kong. Along the treacherous journey, my dad’s nephew was born, their boat had broken down, water had run out and remaining scraps of food had been given to the children. My dad was exhausted and terrified.

The entire group was immediately taken to refugee camps where they waited to hear their names called out, which meant they would be granted an interview to determine if they’d be given permission to leave Hong Kong to make a new life in a foreign land.

Nine months later, my dad’s name was called.

He was one of the lucky ones to get a green light to leave for the United States, where Vietnamese refugees were being accepted. A family in Utah sponsored him and my dad relocated to Salt Lake City, working as a landscaper and a busboy during the day and going to night school to learn English and get a high school diploma.

Eventually, he settled into his profession as a car mechanic and he and his younger brother opened their own car repair shop, where he still works. My dad became an American citizen in 1985 and calls Salt Lake City his home.

When I think of my dad and the sacrifices he made so that my sister and I would never experience the horrors he has, I’m reminded of the refugees and immigrants across the globe who are doing the same. His odyssey is the universal story of countless others who flee their countries to escape violence, danger, and seek a better life for their families and themselves.

I once asked my dad why he decided to leave Vietnam and he matter-of-factly said that he would rather die in the ocean pursuing a better life than die in a place with no opportunities.

What else would compel someone to leave everything they know to face dangerous travel towards an uncertain future?

My dad — like so many others who are currently at the southern border of the United States — risked everything.

The difference between my dad and those at our border now?

My dad had a country that welcomed him and gave him a chance to start a new life.

Selina Tran

Selina Tran is manager of campaign and digital strategies at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.