Ted Nguyen

By Karthik M., Timothy N., Michael P., & Ethan P.

Through the harsh seas and rough air, Ted Nguyen survived through the terrors of Vietnam. When having his home and his clinic taken away, his family persevered. When alone without a true home in a new country, Ted Nguyen created a home.

Ted Nguyen was born in February of 1974 in the small city of Binh Duong, Vietnam. During Ted’s early life, he had an easy childhood. He had caring, laid-back parents. Economically, they did well and would have been considered middle class, as his father was a doctor. However, splitting the money with eight kids was not easy. “You had limited resources because of the big family. You had fewer clothes, toys, attention, etc.” His school life was rather boring. He was filled with work from the inside of rooms. He longed to go outside. In fact, his most vivid memory of school was when he left to visit the wild. “I went on a great camping trip, it rarely happened, but it was a gift to go out.” If only he had known that he would be traveling across countries in just a few years.

Communism spread like a disease across Vietnam with the south suffering the most. The south, who had fought against the Communists now felt the full might of a ruling Socialist Regime. Anyone associated with the southern government was harshly discriminated against. Southern Vietnamese soldiers were detained in concentration camps and worked to death. Southern Vietnamese families were forced out of the city and into the poor rural countryside. A small family in the city of Binh Duong lost their house and clinic to the government for “Collectivisation,” which meant the property was “shared.” “They took privately owned property for the ‘public’ so the government could have all the profit from it.” Although Ted’s family didn’t fight in the war, they were still discriminated against for being Southern Vietnamese. “In school, they favored kids whose parents worked for the government.” Kids of government officials had better chances of going to college and getting a good education. Ted’s parents knew that even though they lived in their small house in the countryside, at any time government officials could take someone from the family to work in their labor camps or the whole property could be taken for “public” benefit. With their children’s futures so uncertain, Ted’s father, Hay Quan, knew it was time to leave.

Hay Quan, father of eight, planned a daring escape in 1982. Paying for seats in a smuggler’s boat, they would sail with almost 200 other people to the Philippines. Tan, now known as Ted, would be rushed onto the overcrowded boat not having a clue of what the occasion was. All he was told by his father was that they were moving somewhere. Ted didn’t know why there were so many other people crammed in a little boat. He didn’t know why they were all rushing and being so secretive. Ted’s father, mother, and seven other siblings huddled in their own respective area of the boat as it set sail. As they sailed, great waves rocked their boat, causing them to slam into others. This would continue for several hours until their boat was illuminated by a bright light. It was the Vietnamese Coast Guard! They were all forcefully arrested without resistance and taken to a prison called Xuyen Moc. Fortunately, in Xuyen Moc Prison, the family was interviewed by the warden and only had to stay in jail for one day. The warden was more lenient on families with many children. But, this was not the end of their journey.

Ted’s father had to plan another escape, but this time only Ted’s older siblings would go. Three years later, the escape plan was initiated. Ted was ten at the time and the details of the escape were unknown to him. A few months later, he found out from his father that the escape was a total success and his three older siblings Tuyen, Tri, and Thi had made it to the United States. Now, at the age of 13, it was Ted’s turn with his two other siblings, Thuy and Thach. Since he was older, he was told all the details of his father’s plan. They would leave on a smuggler’s boat the same way they had tried before, destination — Philippines. The journey would take less than a week if everything went according to plan.

In late 1988, Ted, Thuy, and Thach boarded in the pitch black of night with only lamps revealing the crammed boat they would again be riding on. They huddled with absolutely no room between them, surrounded by strangers. “It was just a regular fishing boat crammed with people so there was hardly any space to move, we were all squeezed in.” The condition on the boat became considerably worse day by day. Excrement slowly lined the boat as there was no room to go to the bathroom and going on the edge of the boat was too risky. Everyone’s clothes were damp by the continuous splashing of waves. Many people were starting to show signs of hypothermia and others vomited at the horrific smell of human waste, making the smell even worse.

It was the seventh day of their trip, and the fear of running out of food rations had become a reality. Ted had no idea how far they were from the Philippines, but with 200 other people on the boat, he knew their food supplies wouldn’t last another day. The boat condition itself had also become dire. There was always the fear of capsizing, and they had no lifeboats or life vests to help. Throughout the seven days, damage to the hull from the waves had severely lowered their chances of survival. The boat was on life support and could sink at a moment’s notice. Luckily, they were rescued by the Philippines Coast Guard.

Those on the boat were given medical care and emergency food for the children and then moved to a refugee camp on an isolated beach. The conditions at the camp were decent compared to Vietnam, with huts made out of tree leaves and wood. They would get daily rations of fish and fruits from nearby villages. Thuy was the only one who knew how to cook, so Ted and Thach relied on her to cook all their meals and take care of them. There was nothing to do at the camp and there was nothing to play with, as they were on a barren beach. Swimming wasn’t an option because of the chances of getting sick. He lived this dull life in the refugee camp for about eight months until delegates from several nations came to interview the refugees. Each family was interviewed together to determine which nation they would go to. Most refugees were looking to go to America, but it was not their choice to make. “The refugees there would be interviewed by government delegates from different countries but most preferred to go to America, and we were interviewed by the American Government and got accepted.” With this, their fate was decided. They were going to the United States!

They were driven to Ninoy Aquino International Airport and Ted was excited to ride an airplane for the first time. As the plane lifted, Ted felt the rush in his ears and the sight outside the window was magnificent. As it was nighttime, the city shined bright next to a vast blue ocean. When he awoke after the 12 hour flight, he found himself in a totally new world.

He felt isolated in this new land. Every step felt like a new planet, causing awe to arise at a force beyond his control. The immense buildings made him feel like he was in a futuristic world. “You got big modern buildings, everything seemed bigger than in Vietnam, you know it’s the first time you are on an airplane, and all the technology, and the roads, and everything is so massive.” Eventually, he enrolled in school and was a decent student, mostly sticking with the same group of friends. Looking back on his time, he said, “You’re mainly on your own and you just had to figure things out on your own.” In college, he worked as a Great America food server and a support engineer, yet was also on welfare for a time. After graduating, he became a software engineer.  Nobody had any idea that he would come this far. When asked if he is happy now, it is clear that he is. “You start a new place, you gotta [have a] better future, and get kinda get used to the place, you come alive, you grow up here, you went to college, graduated, got a job, your life is stable and more secure than if you compare it with the conditions with Vietnam.”

Today, Ted has a wife, Cindy Nguyen, and two children, Timothy and Andy. As his children grow, Ted is thrilled to see that all of his efforts were not for nothing. When Ted looks back on his past, he is very grateful that he is in America now.

If there is one thing to take away from this journey, it is that Ted persevered constantly. And because he did, he has given his children an opportunity greater than they could have imagined if they had stayed in Vietnam.

Marisela Sanchez: “Hope Against Hope”

by Jennalyn B, Princess I., Galilea S., & Mi N.


Whoosh whoosh, the early morning breeze ruffled through my hair. From the tree, I could see my neighborhood stretch before me as far as the eye could see. The sun was just rising, casting a golden glow across Mexico’s streets. My two older brothers and sisters came pouring out of the house. “Come on, Marisela! Time for school,” they called up to me.

I was born in Zitacuaro, Mexico. My mother passed away when I was five. I barely have any memory of her, only traces of her kind voice. Although this left a hole in my heart, my father, siblings, and I led a fairly ordinary life. At the age of eight, I quit school to help my father work. Everyday I would go to the market, selling avocados from morning to noon. Although I loved Zitacuaro, it was not a safe place. Gangs of thieves lurked in all corners, waiting to single someone out to rob and then kill. There was a particular gang, known especially for making sure that their victims’ bodies were never found again. The leader was a drug dealer who made it his custom to rape a young virgin whenever it was his birthday. Chaos ran rampant all around Zitacuaro.

My family and I had managed to avoid this criminal…until my ninth birthday.

I was walking past a dark alley when, from the shadows, the drug dealer appeared. He walked up to me, a menacing smile on his face, his breath reeking of drugs. “Come here child,” he rasped. He tried to wrap his arm around me, but I already understood what was happening. I quickly darted away from him and yelled from the top of my lungs, “HELP! HELP! HE’S TRYING TO RAPE ME!” Fortunately, some policemen were walking by when they heard my cry for help and quickly arrested the drug dealer. But, my problems were far from over.

Weeks later, a gang of people dressed in black arrived at my house. They pulled out a gun and threatened to kill my family if we didn’t release the charges against the drug dealer. My parents did the only reasonable thing they could do, they released the charges against the drug dealer.

Weeks later, the drug dealer came up to my family and threatened to kill them if I didn’t leave Michoacan. Fear and confusion shot through my body, What is going to happen to me?, I thought to myself. My dad tried to keep me with him, but three years later I had to leave. Pain and sadness shattered my heart at the thought of leaving my family. Leaving everything I knew behind was frightening. I cried a river, “No Papa, don’t leave me,” I said. Deep down I knew that I had to leave, for the better of my family and my future. All I could do was hope against hope that someday I would see them again.

It was 1988. I was 12 years old. I boarded multiple planes to get to Tijuana, Mexico. At first, I was excited; it was my first time on a plane. But reality began to sink in, and it felt like a punch in the stomach. During the flights, I became terrified about leaving home. How in the world is a 12-year old supposed to cross the border alone? I wondered.

When I landed in Tijuana, there was a woman eyeing me. The woman said that she was going to help me cross the border to America. Her name was Erene. “So, where are we going to exactly?” I asked, happily walking along with her. She didn’t reply. Why isn’t she talking? I thought. She took me to a house near the freeway and tossed me inside like an old rag. I looked around the mysterious room. I was surrounded by other girls near my age or older. There were no windows and one exit. Who are these people? Why am I here? WAIT…No…No. Trusting that woman was a big mistake! I felt betrayed. Being so gullible wasn’t going to fly in a world like this. I had to get out of here. I tried to talk to the other girls. “What are you all doing here? What happened?” No response. I knew what was happening, there was no point in asking.

We survived solely on tortillas and were drugged to fall asleep. The silence was ominous and eerie. There was no chance of escaping this place. My picture was taken, and I was on a list to be sold.  After fifteen days, while Erene was out, we all heard a loud BOOM! and CRASH! Suddenly, the one exit out of the house opened! I saw the gleaming light of the sun.

A man stood in the doorway motioning everyone to go outside and get away from there. Stepping outside, I saw that the loud noises were from a car crash on the freeway. Okay, now where do I go from here?… Aha! There’s a bus right there! I thought to myself as I formed a plan to escape. I ran back inside to get change and a blanket for the bus ride and ran out the door. I sprinted up a hill at top speed to the bus stop. I boarded the bus and was off to a hotel close to the border. Later that day, I met an older lady named Lorena. We talked, and she convinced me to stay in Mexico with her. We lived together happily for six years.

Then, Lorena finally decided that it was time to move to America. She rented a hotel room in a town close to Los Angeles. Never had I ever laid my eyes on such a beautiful building. It was nothing like the buildings in Michoacan, everything here was so much cleaner. A couple of days later, we took a plane to San Jose. There, we lived in an apartment. It was during this time that I met my first husband and we decided to have a kid. I was in America and in love. I thought my life was finally better, I thought my life was finally perfect…Until something bad happened.

Lorena was forced to leave San Jose in order to take care of her sick husband in Mexico, and my husband was in jail for reasons I prefer not to mention. This left me pregnant and living on the streets. All I could think about were the dangers of living on the streets. My future looked bleak and grim, nothing like I expected. My head constantly hurt from dehydration, my stomach rumbled from being underfed. All I had to survive on were scraps from trash bins and the kindness of others. Under the pressure, I cried out, “God, what have I done to deserve this!”

I was beginning to have suicidal thoughts. What is there to live for anymore? was all I thought about. I tried to cut myself, hoping to lose blood and die. I drank overdoses of medicine, hoping to kill myself. But it didn’t work. Weeks in, I finally gave birth to my first son, Aulian, on the streets. Hearing him cry for milk that I couldn’t provide broke my heart. With renewed energy, I knew I had to survive for my son. I began asking around for more food and water, I tried to look for a job, I prayed to God and the Blessed Mother. I knew I had to do everything to let my son live. Despite the difficulties, I believed that one day it would be alright, I believed that God was going to help me.

Two months later, my prayers were answered. At the park where I slept, I met Josephine Rodriguez. One day, she asked me, “Hola, como es tu dia (Hello, how was your day)?”  I broke down and cried, pouring out my entire story to her. She listened and said that I could temporarily live in her house. I was overjoyed! “Gracias (thank you), Josephina,” I cried. And I truly meant it from the bottom of my heart.

For the next couple of months, while I looked for a job, Josephina took care of Aulian. “It feels good to know that my son is in safe hands,” I told her. One day, I met Rosa at a bus stop. She offered me a job. Soon, I was cleaning and singing at a Mexican restaurant. Over time, Josephina grew attached to me and my son, she treated us as if we were her own family. But, I wanted to find my own place in America, so with great difficulty I parted from Josephina. “I need to be independent, Josephina. I’m sorry, I need to leave,” I told her through tears.

I had to find a new home and job. I soon found a job cleaning at Lucky’s and also people’s houses. I met my second husband when I was hired to clean his house. The more we talked, the more we connected, and our relationship grew. Now, I’m the proud mother of three children. I work as a house cleaner and my husband works in construction.

It is a miracle how my life has turned out. During the darkest times, I never thought that I would survive, yet with hope and determination, and against all odds, I have given my children a brighter future.