FARGO—Tri Phan will retire from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota on Sunday, Dec. 31, after 27 years. He and his colleagues figure Phan will have helped somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000 immigrants and refugees move to the United States.
When a visitor to his office expressed surprise at that number, Phan smiled his easy smile.
"It seems like a lot, but when you figure we help 500 to 600 people a year and you multiply that by the number of years I've been here, then it makes sense," Phan said.
That puts it in perspective, the work Phan has done since coming to America with his family in 1990 after fleeing Vietnam. He came here with nothing after being persecuted in his home country, ended up in a place he'd never heard of, built a good life through hard work and will retire after a meaningful career that saw him send three children to college to earn degrees he never had the opportunity to pursue.
Don't lecture the 66-year-old about the American Dream. He knows it because he's lived it. And he's paved the path for thousands of others to do the same.
"I love to watch the change in people's lives," Phan said. "They come here with nothing. They get a job or two jobs, they get an education and they become self-sufficient. They become Americans. It's amazing."
Phan came to Fargo on Aug. 29, 1990, with the assistance of LSS, Horace Lutheran Church, St. Benedict Church of Wild Rice and Presentation Sisters Center. He remembers the date and the exact time his family landed at Hector International Airport—11:30 p.m. One of his prized possessions is a photograph of himself, his family and his sponsors at the airport beneath a large sign that reads, "Welcome!"
"It was a beautiful moment in my life. I always want to remember it," he said.
The path was not easy. Phan, born in 1951, grew up in South Vietnam in Saigon and dreamed of getting a college education to become a doctor or lawyer. As a young man, he was a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, fighting alongside the United States and other allies against the communist North Vietnamese.
After the U.S. signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam in 1973 and Saigon fell to the communists in 1975, life became difficult for Phan. He was sent to a "re-education camp," where he spent three years before being released in 1978. It was three years of hard labor and near starvation. He nearly died after becoming sick. The slightly built Phan entered the camp weighing 140 pounds, and weighed 100 pounds upon his release. While at the camp for a visit, Phan's mother didn't recognize him.
Phan worked on a farm for six months after his release, a span during which he was on probation—he had to tell an officer what he did, who he talked with and what he talked about. Phan married his girlfriend, Nhung, in late 1978 and shortly afterward started a company that made bamboo curtains.
The company was successful and Phan was the CEO, but communist Vietnam was a difficult place. Aside from the limitations of working under a communist government and the blatant corruption—Phan says he paid a salary to a police officer's wife who never held a job at his company—the stigma attached to former South Vietnamese army officers meant Phan and his family would have limitations on what jobs and opportunities they could pursue.
"It was time to move," he said.
Congress passed the American Homecoming Act in 1988, which loosened immigration restrictions on some Vietnamese. Phan applied for refugee status for himself and his family. They spent six months in the Philippines for a crash course on coming to America.
Their destination was Fargo, which Phan had never heard of. After asking Vietnamese friends about the city, Phan was told it stayed dark for six months of the year and if you spit, it froze before hitting the ground.
Imagine his surprise, then, when the Phans arrived in late August and it was warm, green and sunny.
"They lied to me!" Phan laughed. "It was so clean, all of the grass was mowed. The whole city was like a park. And the people. I felt so welcomed. I'd never met these people, but look how they treated us. They treated us like relatives. That's why my wife and I have stayed in Fargo—even though it did get cold."
Phan immediately found part-time work, first cleaning a community home and then as an interpreter for LSS. He became a certified nursing assistant and got another part-time job at Bethany Homes, where he's continued to work.
He was encouraged to apply to become a bilingual case manager at LSS, and got his first full-time job in America. Phan's been an important part of helping immigrants at LSS ever since, eventually becoming the supervisor of immigration services. He oversaw a staff of five that counsels refugees and immigrants through the complex web of U.S. immigration and citizenship paperwork.
"His experience just grounds him with anybody he's dealing with who might be anxious about documents or the time it takes to process things," said Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president of senior/humanitarian services at LSS. "He's been there, so he understands the anxiety that comes with some of those issues. Some of the people, the families, coming to our nation are anxious about parts of the process and they need that kindness, patience and understanding."
Phan said that while he's proud of helping thousands of new Americans come to Fargo and find jobs—he lists off many clients who have become doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and business owners—he also believed it's his role to bust myths about refugees and immigrants.
"Refugees come here to work, to be successful and be Americans," Phan said. "There are so many misunderstandings. People say, 'It's too easy to get here!' No, it's very hard to get here. 'Why do we give money to refugees?' No, we don't have the money to do that. 'None of these people have jobs!' No, most who come here get jobs almost right away. There is too much misunderstanding, too much misinformation."
Phan says he counsels refugees to work hard and get an education. And to take advantage of opportunities to improve themselves and their place in the community.
"People need to understand that a refugee's life is up and down, up and down. It's hard to plan because you don't know what is going to happen next," Phan said. "People ask me, 'Did you plan to work with immigrants?' No, I had an opportunity and I took it. Refugees can't plan for the future because they don't know what the future is. That's why I tell every one of them, work hard and get educated."
Phan and his wife will retire to southern California to be near children and grandchildren. All three of his kids received degrees from North Dakota State University and have successful careers.
"We are a country of immigrants. To see people come here and become successful Americans ... amazing," Phan said.