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story.lead_photo.caption Nghi and Phuong Le walk past former housing quarters Wednesday at Fort Chaffee, where they first lived after fleeing Vietnam in 1975. More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/620chaffee/ - Photo by David Gottschalk

FORT SMITH -- Nghi Le thought he was being taken to the jungle.

The forest he saw from an airplane window was in the wilds of western Arkansas.

Nghi and his family were fleeing Vietnam just days after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

They spent their first two months in America at Fort Chaffee.

On Wednesday, they returned for the first time in 44 years.

Gallery: Former refugees revisit Fort Chaffee

"I tell my family, 'We are so lucky,'" said Nghi, who was an officer and pilot in the South Vietnamese air force. "The people in America were so nice. They welcomed us."

The family decided it was time to return to Fort Chaffee, where their American journey began, said Vi Le, the daughter of Nghi and Phuong Le, all of whom currently live in Yukon, Okla.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I haven't been out here. I've just heard stories."

In 1975, they arrived in a new and exotic place -- Arkansas.

Phuong said that at Fort Chaffee, for the first time, she saw "ice fall from the sky."

Also, for the first time, they saw manufactured baby food. When 18-month-old Vi wouldn't eat it, her parents felt obligated to do so. They didn't want it to go to waste, and they didn't want to appear ungrateful.

Walking around Fort Chaffee on Wednesday, Nghi and Phuong pointed out different buildings, saying movies were shown here or the cafeteria was there.

"At Fort Chaffee, my parents felt very welcomed and taken care of," Vi said. "It was not a good time, of course, but the stories of the refugee camp are always positive. There was much uncertainty but also a sense of hope that things were going to be OK. They were overwhelmed with gratitude."

Two of Phuong's younger siblings came with the family to Fort Chaffee -- her 13-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother.

The Le family fled Vietnam for Thailand before Nghi, who stayed behind to fly other refugees out of the country.

"My dad sent us with a friend of his early because he believed the country would be lost," Vi said. "We thought my dad was dead because he had sent us on a plane ahead of him."

Phuong said someone told her they had seen Nghi, and that he was very much alive.

"I was so nervous," she said. "I prayed that I'd see my husband again. .... If I don't see my husband, I don't know what I'd do because I've got my daughter, my sister and my brother."

She waited at the airport in Thailand for days as planes came in full of refugees.

Then one day, there was Nghi.

After a short time at Fort Chaffee, the Les found a sponsor in Fort Hood, Texas. From there, they moved to Houston and eventually settled in the Oklahoma City area, where Nghi and Phuong got jobs working for Western Electric Co., Vi said.

Fort Chaffee was one of four main entry points for Indochinese refugees in 1975, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

From 1975 to 1976, Fort Chaffee processed 50,809 Vietnam War refugees, including Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong people. Many were granted permanent, legal residence in the United States as political refugees, according to the encyclopedia.

Most of them soon found homes with host families around the country, according to the encyclopedia article. The United States Catholic Conference found sponsors for 20,000 of the refugees.

The Le family converted to Catholicism in Vietnam. The Sisters of Mercy helped the refugees at Fort Chaffee.

Vi is now general counsel for Mercy health systems in Arkansas and Oklahoma. She is also board president of Catholic Charities in Oklahoma.

"My story really is about the intersection of my personal, professional and volunteer life," she said. "In all parts of my life, I get to have a heart for the poor, immigrants, women and children, and those in political strife, all things that the Sisters of Mercy believe in."

In the year 2000, the United Nations General Assembly decided that June 20 would be celebrated as World Refugee Day.

Photo by David Gottschalk
Vi Le (right) and her parents, Phuong (left) and Nghi Le, talk about their experiences at Fort Chaffee during a tour of the former refugee center Wednesday. “I tell my family, ‘We are so lucky,’” said Nghi, who was an officer and pilot in the South Vietnamese air force. “The people in America were so nice. They welcomed us.” More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/620chaffee/
Photo by David Gottschalk
Vi Le (right) and her parents, Phuong (left) and Nghi Le, talk about their experiences at Fort Chaffee during a tour of the former refugee center Wednesday. “I tell my family, ‘We are so lucky,’” said Nghi, who was an officer and pilot in the South Vietnamese air force. “The people in America were so nice. They welcomed us.” More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/620chaffee/

A Section on 06/20/2019

Print Headline: INTO THE AMERICAN JUNGLE: 44 years later, refugees return to Arkansas, revisit 1st U.S. steps

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