Vietnamese refugee reflects on the new life he built in Alaska

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

KODIAK - Two years and six months ago, Tieu Tran received a phone call from his employer.

It was the 25th anniversary of the day he started work at Alaska's Kodiak Island Borough School District. The district wanted to recognize his loyalty.

Tran, now 62 and retired from his job as a school custodian, remembers exactly when the call came.

"They call me at four o'clock and say come here, we have something for you," Tran said.

The school district honored him with an oak and brass plaque that now hangs prominently in his living room, next to a collection of photographs - some taken in Kodiak, some in San Diego where his sisters live and some in his home country of Vietnam.

Though proud of his heritage, the Vietnamese images trigger memories Tran tries to avoid. He has been back to Vietnam a few times since he left 33 years ago, but never for longer than a vacation.

Kodiak has been a good home and most of his family now lives in the United States. But he will never forget his flight from Vietnam on April 29, 1975, the fall of Saigon.

Tran stared out the window of his family's downtown home that night. Bombs illuminated the night sky in shades of red and orange, as they had for days.

Northern soldiers, clutching machine guns, dominated the city streets, killing civilians because they lived in what had been the Republic of South Vietnam.

Tran, single and 39, was forced to make a decision. He could stay and risk being confined to a jail cell with other South Vietnamese government workers, undergoing what the communist regime called "re-education."

Or he could sacrifice everything and leave his homeland and family - four sisters, three brothers, his mother and father, all of whom lived together in a large, modern house in the city.

Tran left that night, traveling in the dark to a coastal dock where thousands of South Vietnamese congregated, each hoping to be among those ferried to safety.

"We don't care where the boats take us," Tran said. "We don't care which way. They pick up and say go and we go."

Eight hours later, Tran found himself on a boat to Kodiak. He was told he was sponsored by St. Paul Lutheran Church.

Tran knew nothing of Kodiak. He knew little of Lutherans. Their Christian teachings seemed to differ radically from the teachings of Buddhism.

He was first taken to Guam, where he lived in a refugee camp with 20,000 other people. He spent six months at the camp before being taken to a military camp in Arkansas. He stayed there a few weeks and was treated hospitably by the American soldiers.

His next stop was Kodiak. He found the lush vegetation of the small fishing port beautiful. The isolation of the island made him feel farther from Vietnam than he had since leaving.

"I come to Kodiak and it is very nice, very pretty," Tran said. "And here there's no more hiding from communists."

Tran was pleased with his new life in Alaska. He was hired by the borough immediately, and the church helped him settle into a home.

By now his sister also had fled Vietnam, making a home in San Diego. He visited, and his sister introduced him to a young woman named Heip Nguyen.

The couple wrote letters back and forth for one year, before she moved to Kodiak. They had a large wedding in California with an American-style wedding cake and a Buddhist ceremony. They moved into an apartment in Kodiak after the wedding.

Three months later, Heip gave birth to their son, Robert. Today, Robert is a senior at University of Alaska Anchorage studying management information systems.

"As long as communist in Vietnam, it's not the same as before," Tran said. "No more same life, no more same job."

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