Duy Nguyen was just 5 years old when smugglers led him, his mother, his aunt and about 40 other people toward a boat to escape communist Vietnam.
“It was a huge gamble,” Nguyen recalled. “My mother had actually tried to escape seven times and failed, and each time she got caught, she went to prison.”
Getting to the boat was rough — passengers had to walk through shallow but wave-whipped water to reach the vessel in the cover of night. By the time he boarded, Nguyen had become separated from his family but was reunited shortly after the boat headed toward the Philippines.
Nguyen is now a student at the UC Davis School of Medicine, where he will graduate in May. He’s eager to share vital insight about the refugee experience with behavioral health providers: Nguyen wrote a paper about his saga that was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
“The traumas of the refugee experience are real, but it is important to see what may have been gained from those experiences,” Nguyen wrote in the paper, “Hunted: Thoughts on Escape and Safety.”
“For a year, we lived like animals, each day scavenging for food and safety, scampering along hidden trails untouched by sidewalks or laws, our predators both criminals and the police — we knew we could be killed on sight,” Nguyen wrote.
“And, in fact, it’s been estimated that up to 70% of us died. It is no wonder that even years later in the safety of a new land, we carried this hiding with us, whether in school or in a doctor’s office.”
Escaping was deadly experience for some
Nguyen, a fourth-year medical student and aspiring psychiatrist, was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. It was just a year after the Vietnam War ended and the communist government prevented citizens from easily leaving.
Two family members died trying to flee. But Nguyen’s mom was so determined to leave and never return that she devised a morbid-sounding suicide pact: In case they were caught, she would kill Nguyen, then kill herself. “We would die together,” Nguyen said. “If you took such a journey, you’d have to have that kind of mindset.”
Nguyen’s mother was 23 when she paid the smugglers for the escape. The boat captain’s plan was to steer to the Philippines because the island country had the nearest U.S Embassy. But the vessel ran out of fuel and drifted to Malaysia, where authorities intercepted the boat by firing gunshots and briefly jailed the passengers.
After boarding another boat, Nguyen, his mother and his aunt arrived in the Philippines. They remained in a refugee camp for about six months while waiting for paperwork that authorized their resettlement in the United States. They flew to San Diego and moved in with Nguyen’s uncle in nearby La Mesa.
Challenges of resettling in the U.S.
Nguyen struggled in his new surroundings.
“We had lost everything; now, we were lost in everything. I was mute for two years in school because I was never taught English. I cheated when my first grade teacher asked students to write down their names and looked at what the boy next to me wrote: Steve McNeely. I copied that. And then Robert Taylor, Seth Campfield: I copied their names too,” Nguyen wrote.
“I did not know how to write Duy Nguyen. I failed first grade.” Nguyen eventually learned English and succeeded in school, but it was largely a difficult experience.
He later learned that the refugee experience is universal, no matter if the newcomers are from Latin America, Asia or Africa.
“All have had some kind of trauma,” Nguyen said. “You were ejected out of a chaotic society, you diverged from civilization in a life-and-death struggle, you made some sort of a trek, then came to America and had a post-migration culture shock,” he said.
The refugee experience is a lasting one, Nguyen stated. It includes psychiatric disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), disruptive behavior, depression and even psychosis.
“My hope is that if I was a refugee child in front of you, that this would be the story you would try to tell me about myself. It would help me understand that I had persevered,” Nguyen wrote.
“When an athlete wins a championship or a woman gives birth, we look at them in light of what they have accomplished or created. We admire their determination and will, and then we say, now let’s take a look at those injuries.”
Sharing his story with health professionals
Writing about his refugee experience, Nguyen said, has been therapeutic. In addition to educating providers, Nguyen also wants to share his experience with younger Vietnamese Americans who don’t understand some of the traumas the previous generations have endured.
Nguyen graduated from UC Berkeley in 2001 with degrees in psychology and literature and stayed in the East Bay, where he taught English literature at San Leandro High School. He also was a theater director. After 14 years of teaching he decided to apply to medical school. After graduating this spring, Nguyen will head to UCSF-Fresno for its psychiatric residency program.
His mother and aunt, meanwhile, graduated from college and are both senior software engineers at Qualcomm in San Diego.
Looking back, Nguyen says the misfortune in his life has also been his fortune, which he acknowledges is ironic. Because he survived devastating circumstances during childhood, he sees how life always has promise, which makes it hard to be cynical as an adult.
Many refugees become humanist, valuing family and society above personal ambition “because we had been so hurt by life and have witnessed so many people sacrifice for others,” he said.
“Children who are privileged and have never had to face hardship perhaps also have a hard time understanding another’s pain. They can be blind to the fact that people can sacrifice for each other,” Nguyen said. “It is not because they are surrounded by selfish people, but because their circumstances have never demanded that.”
In many instances, Nguyen said, their parents or friends never had the experience of risking their lives or making sacrifices for them.
“They never got the chance to see that they are loved and because of this, perhaps, the world may even seem a less loving place. But it isn’t,” Nguyen said.
“I remember my mother begging for me when I was starving and giving me the food, she received. I remember my aunt trying to give me the best seat in a garbage truck that drove us to the refugee camp. I remember the man, a stranger, who put me on his shoulders so I would not drown when we fled the police,” he said.
“And these memories continually remind me of the kindness that surrounds us.”
Learn more: “Hunted: Thoughts on Escape and Safety” JAACAP Connect, Issue 8_2, Spring 2021