When Nam Tran left Vietnam at age 9, he embarked on a journey that finally ended two years later when he was placed in a foster family in Centerville. Like most Vietnamese refugees, Nam has a story to tell. Unlike many, his has a happy ending as well as a new beginning.
Nam was born in Tanchau, a Vietnamese town near the Cambodian border in 1976. His parents and younger brother died a short time after. He said he doesn't know for sure how they died but his grandmother, with whom he lived until he was 9, told him they were killed during one of the many bombings of Cambodia. One day in 1985, a 19-year-old man came to his grandmother's house."My grandmother told me to go with him," Nam said.
He and his companion began what he called "a long, long walk" across Cambodia. After 16 days, Nam and his traveling companion reached a refugee camp in Thailand.
Along the way Nam and his companion encountered situations that most 9-year-olds only imagine while playing with G.I. Joes and Ninja warriors.
"We got beat up and stuff by the Cambodian army. We didn't dare to run because they had guns and stuff. So, we had to do whatever they asked us to do," he said. When soldiers stopped them it was usually to steal what money or personal valuables Nam and his friend possessed.
After six months in the Thai refugee camp, which Nam said was "not that great," he was able to come to the United States through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. He eventually found a home with the Alan Schulz family of Centerville.
Like Nam, most Southeast Asian refugee children haven't had much to smile about in their lifetimes, but a Chinese New Year's party at St. Ann's Social Hall Saturday evening brightened their much-traveled spirits.
The Catholic Community Services of Utah, Refugee Foster Care Program provided food, gifts and entertainment for about 70 refugee children from Cambodia and Vietnam. The children's foster families accompanied them at the celebration.
Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the lunar year with festivals and family reunions. It usually falls in late January or early February.
While the celebration has Chinese origin, the party at St. Ann's took on an American as well as Vietnamese flavor. A magician provided the entertainment after which the children danced to American rock 'n' roll.
In the Chinese tradition, which was adopted by the Vietnamese, children were given red envelopes containing crisp American dollar bills. It's considered "lucky money." The children can spend the money however they like to ring in the new year as well as celebrate their birthdays, as everyone becomes a year older with the passing of the lunar year.
"Part of our effort is to provide them with some type of cultural support that's familiar," said Joe Yurkovich, a case worker with Catholic Community Services. Some of the sights, sounds and smells of the Vietnamese celebration were evident, although Nam said the festival is even more wonderful in Vietnam.
Ongoing political problems have resulted in a continuous flow of refugees from Southeast Asia.
Sarah Smith, a recruiter-trainer for the program, said the organization is the legal guardian for the refugee children. Most of the children have at some point been separated from their families. Some children were on their own after their parents were able to secure passage for one child only aboard vessels smuggling people out of their homeland.
Most have spent six months in the squalid conditions of a refugee camp. Some spent as long as two years.
Many refugee children leave their country with the blessings of their families, and they expect their parents to join them at some time. And because there is no way of telling if their parents are still living, the children are considered unadoptable. Consequently, they are placed in long-term foster care.
Smith said the Utah program receives names of refugee children from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C. The Utah program then tries to place those children in foster homes.