She escaped Saigon, found a home in Ohio and today teaches Sunday school in Texas.
by Kathryn Haueisen
HOURS BEFORE SAIGON FELL in April 1975, Eva Nguyen’s family crowded into the last C-130 cargo plane to airlift people out as the North Vietnamese approached the city. For her parents and older brothers, the
rescue brought feelings of grief, fear and relief. For 5-year-old Eva, flying with her parents, her five siblings and 450 other refugees and U.S. personnel was exciting. Yet the Nguyens were leaving other family members behind, without knowing if they would ever see them again.
Before their departure, Eva’s father flew helicopters to rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Eva’s mother had insisted the family leave, joining more than 45,000 people in fleeing Saigon right before its fall. After a short stay at Wake Island military base, Eva’s family joined hundreds of other refugees at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. Eva remembers living in military barracks.
In the spring of 1975, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service staff grew from four to a hundred, working with social service organizations across the U.S. Within six months, they had resettled some 16,000 people. Eva and her family were among them. Clintonville Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, agreed to sponsor the Nguyen family, who flew to central Ohio in July 1975.
“Many members showed up at the airport to greet us,” Eva remembers. “We called Frieda Tresemer ‘Grandma.’ She was a retired teacher and tutored us in English. I got my American name ‘Eva’ from another woman in the congregation who helped us. My first impression of the United States was that the country [was] full of salt-of-the-earth type of kind and generous people. They were the sort of quiet people who keep our country moving.”
Kenneth Cahill, current council president at Clintonville Lutheran, was a teenager when the congregation welcomed the Nguyens. “They came to all the church potlucks and brought Vietnamese dishes,” he says, adding that the family’s children were extremely well behaved and polite.
Eva remembers some things being difficult. “My mother grieved the loss of her Cao Dai temple in Vietnam,” she said. “She grew up where the religion, a mix of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism and Confucianism, started in 1926. My grandfather was killed at the temple during the 1968 Tet Offensive.”
Eva’s mother would set out things in their apartment that reminded her of the temple. “The congregation never tried to dissuade her from having elements of her religion in our home,” Eva says. “I really appreciated how the people of the congregation didn’t try to proselytize us, but just helped us in many ways. Our family’s religion was very different from the Lutheran tradition, but that did not matter to these people.”
Kenneth remembers that the congregation helped the Nyugens with housing. “We put the family up in a two-bedroom apartment above a store a couple of blocks from the church,” he says. “It was a very modest home for such a large family. It must have been especially difficult for Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen. At first, [Mr. Nyugen] had to go to work doing yard work, and it was very hot that summer.”
Although Mr. Nyugen had been a pilot in Vietnam, “my father never flew again after we left Saigon,” Eva says. Her mother, a teacher by training, ended up doing clerical work. “They often stayed in their bedroom, listening to Vietnamese music,” Eva remembers. “They must have been so homesick, with no hope of ever going back. They lost their country, their jobs and had to leave other family behind.”
Resettling in the U.S. was also a huge adjustment for Eva and her siblings, aged 2 to 9 when they arrived in Columbus. “However, we had each other for company, and before long, we also had other youth at church,” Eva says. “We all attended Sunday school, went through confirmation and participated in all the church youth activities.”
The Rev. Kathryn Haueisen is retired pastor who spends her time traveling, reading, writing and volunteering.
This is excerpted from an article in the January/February 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.
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