Refugees no more: Vietnamese family escapes homeland on faith, finds prosperity in Virginia

November 15, 2007

Refugees no more: Vietnamese family escapes homeland on faith, finds prosperity in Virginia

By Gretchen R. Crowe

Arlington Catholic Herald (

McLEAN, Va. (Arlington Catholic Herald) – Five-year-old Chau “Helen” Pho was the Arlington Catholic Herald’s very first cover girl.

SAFE IN THE U.S. - Chau Pho Tung was 5 years old when she fled war-torn Vietnam with her family in 1975. Now, at age 37, she is an American citizen with a family of her own, including daughter Sophie, 2. (Catholic Herald/Gretchen R. Crowe)
SAFE IN THE U.S. – Chau Pho Tung was 5 years old when she fled war-torn Vietnam with her family in 1975. Now, at age 37, she is an American citizen with a family of her own, including daughter Sophie, 2. (Catholic Herald/Gretchen R. Crowe)
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In January 1976, the little dark-eyed girl sat on the lap of then-Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh as he welcomed her and other refugees of war-torn Vietnam to the Arlington Diocese. A moment captured in time, the photo of their interaction was used on the front page of this newspaper’s first issue.

Now, three decades later, 37-year-old Chau Pho Tung is no longer a refugee, but instead an American citizen with a toddler of her own.

Tung only vaguely remembers the 16 days she, her parents, and her five brothers and sisters spent in three different refugee camps as they were moved from Southeast Asia to the United States in an attempt to regain the stable life they had known in their native country.

Sitting in her parents’ McLean living room sipping Vietnamese tea, Tung recently related pieces of the story of the family’s exodus from Vietnam with the help of her father, Long Ba Pho, and her mother, Claire.

The escape

When the Phos decided to flee Vietnam in April 1975, Long and Claire told their children that they were going on a beach vacation. Tung packed up her new blocks, and under cover of night, the family made their way to Saigon and eventually to the Philippines.

At first, “Long didn’t plan to go all the way (to the United States),” Claire said with a strong Vietnamese accent. “He just planned to go to Manila and stay there until the situation calmed down and then come back.”

But the political situation in Vietnam didn’t calm down, and the Phos suddenly found themselves refugees.

For more than two weeks, the family was shuffled from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Wake Island in the South Pacific to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

Long had been to the United States before — most notably 14 years earlier when he won a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MBA from Harvard University. This was the first trip for Tung, who had been born in the central highlands of Dalat, Vietnam.

After three days at Fort Chaffee, the family was released into the care of Long’s brother, Quan, who worked at the World Bank in Washington. To this day Long reminds his family of the day — May 7 — their plane touched down at National Airport.

A new start

Quan had rented the Phos a small house in McLean, where they slept on the floor until they got furniture, some of which was paid for by the U.S. Catholic Conference (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Not wanting his children to skip a beat, Long immediately enrolled his five school-age children at nearby Kent Gardens Elementary School.

“My dad really wanted us to mainstream and get immersed quickly and pick up the language,” said Tung, who started kindergarten at the new American school. “I was really lucky, because it was kind of the perfect age to be transitioning. Probably six months after moving here I was pretty fluent in English.”

The transition was more difficult for her older brothers and sisters, Tung said, as well as for her parents.

“It was a struggle for my parents to resettle and then find new jobs and have us all in school,” she said.

But “little by little,” Claire said, the family began to regain its life.

They joined St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, where Long and Claire are still parishioners. Both converts to Catholicism, Claire said that it was their faith that sustained them while living as refugees.

“If we don’t have faith, I don’t know if we can survive that ordeal,” Claire said. Many refugees become bitter, she said. “They only think of what they had before. They don’t compare what they gain. My husband, he was always positive.”

Long said there was no reason not to be.

“I say to myself, we are lucky that we have our family with us,” he said. “(In the United States), we expected to be given a small piece of land where we can grow potatoes. Even with my Harvard background, I never thought of (having all) this.”

“All this” is a house and belongings that they own “free and clear,” Tung said, and six independent children — all well-educated American citizens.
From needing help to giving help: Chau’s story

The dark-eyed 5-year-old who sat on Bishop Welsh’s lap all those years ago is one of those success stories — and, in the mid-’90s, she used her education and knowledge to help other Vietnamese refugees.

After Tung graduated from Georgetown University in 1992, she got an internship with the United Nations’ development program in Laos. That led to a job with the Orderly Departure Program in Bangkok, China, where she handled cases of political refugees from Vietnam, she said. For three years, Tung assisted those to whom she could relate in the most personal way.

Tung’s parents, also, reached out over the years to many refugees — both in the United States and abroad — and Long helped establish the diocesan Vietnamese parish, Holy Martyrs of Vietnam in Arlington. He also advised many parish committees and parish councils on their work with refugees.

After Tung returned to the United States, she earned a master’s in Southeast Asian studies at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, married fellow Georgetown-alum Charles Tung and moved to the West Coast. The couple now lives in Seattle, where Charles is a professor of English at Jesuit-run Seattle University.

After working as a marketing manager for a large global transportation company, Tung said she decided to become a stay-at-home mom for her 2-year-old daughter, Sophie — something she called a “pretty drastic career change.”

Tung, though, takes all these transitions in stride, having learned about acclimation at a very young age.

Adaptation is part of the history of America, said her father. And his children, he said, should always be grateful for the opportunities given them and search for ways to offer assistance to others.

“They’re Americans now, so there is a lot of opportunity for them,” Long said. “But it’s a good opportunity to give back.”

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Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald , the official publication of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. (


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