Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

The story so far

Jeanne Buck Coburn, a Mary Kay Cosmetics sales director living in Waterloo, Iowa, contacted former IowaWatch intern Clare McCarthy after reading McCarthy’s Aug. 5, 2015, story Response To Refugees In Iowa Has Changed In 40 Years because two Iowans featured in a photo with the story are her parents. Coburn told of how her parents took in the Nguyen family, refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s who moved to Iowa after the war in their country ended. McCarthy asked Coburn for help reaching out to someone in the Nguyen family who would be willing to tell McCarthy what has happened to the family. Meantime, McCarthy prepared to interview Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad about the state’s policy toward modern day Burmese refugees.

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Jeanne Buck Coburn
Jeanne Buck Coburn

When Jeanne Buck Coburn’s parents died, the Nguyens made the effort to return to Iowa for their funerals. Jeanne said they had very high regards for both of her parents so they were sad, but also happy to be with Jeanne’s family again after such a long time. Jeanne’s parents wanted to be cremated so that half of them could be buried in an urn at the local cemetery and half of them could be scattered throughout their back yard. After Jeanne’s mother died in 2008, the Nguyens wanted to help with the scattering. “It was very emotional, it was very touching, because we were all there and the family was all there.”

Jeanne explained how moved they all were, as they took a handful of her parents’ ashes and scattered them throughout the yard. “We had a lot of trees in our backyard, and we all sort of took turns and took some of the ashes and scattered them the way we wanted to. And you know, they were very intentional and they took their time in scattering the ashes and they had scattered them carefully around all the trees—you know, the little bit that they had. And they were moved, they were sad. But I think it was a good ritual and it was good to include them in that ritual as well.”

“…they were very intentional and they took their time in scattering the ashes and they had scattered them carefully around all the trees—you know, the little bit that they had.”

Jeanne was able to get in touch with Phat (Patrick) Nguyen, who wished to communicate with me through e-mail so that he had more time to answer my questions. I sent him several questions about his life in Vietnam and the family’s experience in the Malaysian refugee camp, along with any stories he wanted to tell me about living in the United States after his journey here. It took several days for him to get back to me, but he replied with a lengthy word document detailing his experiences in Vietnam, Malaysia, and the United States. I at first wanted to include all of the document, but found certain sections within it that stood out to me, particularly Phat’s description of the Pulau Bidong refugee camp.

Excerpt from Phat Nguyen,
who was 16 at the time of his arrival in the United States:

Many years, not long ago, I lived in Viet-Nam

Now I live across the world.

In Viet-Nam there was a city.

Saigon was the name.

Divided were the people.

And the hate grew and grew.

The Chinese fought and the Vietnamese fought.

And the war was great.

But now I am happy to have found a place across the world

Where life is free.

And still each night I dreamt –

Of friends, of a home, and of hope.

My name is Phat (Patrick) Ky Nguyen; I was born at Saigon (Cho-lon) on January 14, 1963. The Viet-Nam war had a devastating effect in the 1960’s. I almost lost most of my previous life due to the war. At the time, I was just six years old, while on the verge of sickness and almost unconscious for three whole days. Thank God for saving my life.

In May of 1978, my family was unfortunately unlucky. Because my family was oppressed and targeted, all of my family’s estate and property was taken by [the] Communist Government. This was a tragic event since my family owned a rice factory business. Due to these harsh conditions, my family and I tried to leave Viet-Nam a month later. We purchased a nineteen-meter wooden boat at My Tho Vietnam to escape Vietnam. At that time, I asked my father to let me bring my best friend Muoi Tam Ly come with me. He said, “No, no, no, son! You are only 15 and cannot bring your girlfriend with you.” I was very upset and had no choice. However, she was not aware that I asked my father to bring her with me; rather she gave me two pocket-sized photos to keep of her. Finally, my family left My Tho (South of Saigon) in October 19, 1978 and four days later arrived 450 km Northeast of Kuala Lumpur in Terengganu, Malaysia.

However, we were unlucky again. The waves were too strong. The boat broke in two and sunk. After that unfortunate accident, everyone had to jump into the sea and swim. Some did not know how to swim and struggled holding the boards. Those who knew how to swim would help them push the boards to the shore. The beach was very pretty, especially after everyone was saved. We were all extremely tired and collapsed on the beach until the police officers arrived. Then they moved us to Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp…

Unidentified Vietnamese refugees in Des Moines in 1975.
Unidentified Vietnamese refugees in Des Moines in 1975. Credit: State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City

At one time, this small island housed more than 40,000 refugees in the south side. The rest of the island was not open to the public. It would be considered a major crime if the police found you in the forbidden area. My family boat number was ninety-five, which meant that it was the ninety-fifth boat to have arrived and the name of the boat [was] MT539. In the early years, people lived under the trees, tents, or anything they could find to avoid the tropical, hot sun, rain, and ocean storm. Food was scarce. In the beginning, Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) provided provisions such as anchovy (salty dry fish), sardine can fish, rice, and chicken, but in very few amounts. As years went by, the MRCS organized the island into a more orderly and civilized area. The island soon had large houses, hospitals, school, clinics, temples, churches, and some small businesses operated by refugees such as bakeries and coffee shops. In addition, the food from MRCS was much more abundant: plenty of instant noodles, condensed milk, green beans, sugar, salts, flours, chicken, fish, and vegetables. However, Pulau Bidong had so abundant a supply of fish around the island, so people would try to fish for food. We continued to live under the tree living for a few weeks. Then we moved to a mountain. It was here where we learned to use a handsaw to cut down trees and use the branches to build our own house. Then afterward, once a week, we would chop the tree to the stump and cut small pieces to bring home for cooking. Looking back, the first week arriving at the camp I was very disappointed with everything. The only thing on my mind was to go back home immediately.

Fortunately, my family and I were very lucky and only had to stay on the island camp for six months since my older brothers were former Vietnam soldiers. In April 26, 1979, my family and I left the country of Malaysia to go to Guan. Then we flew to Hawaii in the United States where we stayed there for a night. Next day, we took another plane to go to the state of Iowa. We arrived in Iowa on April 29, 1979. My family was the first group of “Boat People” refugees to arrive in Iowa. My family and I were extremely lucky to have had a sponsor who would pay for our way to the United States and show us how to live here.

The first house my family and I lived in was a two-story old country home. The neighbors were over a mile away. I came from a greatly populated city, and now I lived in a secluded country town. That was the moment where I became lonelier, realizing that I had no friends, no way to communicate with others fluently, and [everything] had to be started all over again. Sometimes at night, holding Muoi Tam Ly’s picture brought my mind to peace and I was able to get onto the next day. Later, I wrote letters back home and told her all about my new living. One time, I even thought about sponsoring her to [the] United States but then forgot I am not US citizen yet.

Throughout high school, I still wrote letters back and forth with Muoi Tam Ly. I graduated high school in 1983 and continued my education at Iowa State University. Until middle of 1986, I received a letter from Muoi Tam Ly and she told me will leaving Vietnam with her boyfriend. At that moment I cried and cried, [and] finally just tore up all the letters she had sent to me. However, I never told her how much I care[d] about her.

About This Series

Clare McCarthy
Clare McCarthy

Open Arms in Iowa is a five-part long-form story told in narrative form by Clare McCarthy, a 2016 Cornell College (Mount Vernon, Iowa) graduate and former IowaWatch staff writer. McCarthy wrote this story for her senior project in narrative journalism when studying at Cornell. IowaWatch separated the complete story into five parts in order to publish it as a serial.

Part 1: How A News Report Brought Back Memories Of Iowa’s Vietnamese Refugee Rally

Part 2: From Refugee Camp to Iowa, Plus Prepping For A Story 40 Years Later

Part 3:
Transition From Vietnamese Refugees To Iowans An Intercultural Adventure

The entire story, without being separated for parts, may be read here.

While he did answer some of my questions, most of the story was centralized around Phat’s undying love for a girl from his middle school in Vietnam, to whom he was forced to say goodbye when the Nguyens were driven out from the country.

Phat met Muoi Tam Ly while playing table tennis after school each day, and immediately became friends with her. Although she was two years older than he, they eventually began dating, and Phat described some of what he remembers most about their time together in Vietnam. “I still remember before Chinese New Year where it was my first time riding a bicycle with her from Cho-lon to Saigon. Unfortunately, I got a flat tire midway and it made me feel so embarrassed. The second day we both went out again and I took her home for Chinese New Year’s Day. Afterward, she invited me to watch her performance of the Bamboo Dancing Show in Quan 6 (County 6) with her older sister. Sometime after playing ping-pong we both [went] out for Che Ba Mau—[it’s] three-color Vietnamese cold drink dessert. Che Bae was made in a sundae glass, containing crushed ice, red kidney beans, yellow mung beans pudding, green jellies, and coconut cream. At night time, I came [to] her house [and] pick[ed] her up for Hong Dou Tang (Chinese mung red beans soup) or Lu Dou Tang (Chinese green beans soup). This was the most exciting time for the both of us. As time passed, she graduated from Dong Nghia Middle School in the summer of 1978 and moved on to Tran Khai Nguyen High School, leaving me behind to stay in middle school,” Phat wrote.

Phat stayed in touch with her as best he could once he reached the United States. Even after she told him she was leaving Vietnam with her boyfriend, Phat continued to pine for Muoi Tam Ly’s love, constantly dreaming of seeing her again one day. “From day one after she left Vietnam, I [was] always looking for her, Muoi Tam Ly. I kept in touch with some of the same schoolmates through the mail, but none of them tell me where [she] was located. But I always kept her small photos inside my wallet. Every day I kept looking for her. Constantly, dreaming about her, but nothing would ever happen. The feeling of hopelessness left me feeling depressed and heartbroken constantly. I would cry and cry…realizing I might not ever see her again.”

In the summer of 2014, Muoi Tam Ly reached out to Phat over Facebook, asking if he remembered her. Phat was thrilled, describing it as “the happiest moment in his life.” After messaging each other for several months, Phat declared his love for her, telling her he had kept it a secret for the past 38 years. “The first time she called me we both cried on the phone for over a few minutes,” Phat wrote. In 2015, Phat went to Miami, Florida, to be with Muoi Tam Ly for her 53rd birthday. It was the first time he had seen her since he had left Vietnam in 1978. Phat described how they both hugged and cried and smiled at one another, not even saying a word.

Next: An interview with the governor and attitudes in the 2010s, as the story concludes.

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