From refugee to sponsor: a 40-year journey

A child refugee from Vietnam in 1979 now sponsoring Syrian refugees with MCC Canada

Jun 27, 2016 by and

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As a 5-year-old resting in her mother’s arms at the bottom of a boat crowded with refugees, Nhung Tran could not have imagined the life she’s living now. A life as a doctor in Canada. A life where she is responsible for bringing two families to safety as a sponsor.

The Tran family, Vietnamese refugees who settled in Canada in 1979, was photographed a few months after they arrived with toys donated by their sponsors. Nhung Tran-Davies is at right, in front. — Nhung Tran-Davies

The Tran family, Vietnamese refugees who settled in Canada in 1979, was photographed a few months after they arrived with toys donated by their sponsors. Nhung Tran-Davies is at right, in front. — Nhung Tran-Davies

It was the fall of 1978, and Tran’s mother, a widow, joined the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Vietnam. She packed herself and six children into a boat in the midst of the stormy season with the hope they would make it to Malaysia.

Now Tran-Davies, she remembers only glimpses of the two-day journey.

“It was really tight, and it was very hot and it was hard to breathe down there — the smell of the vomit and my older sister crying because she was sick to her stomach,” she said.

Despite the difficult crossing, she knows they were lucky. Another boat that left minutes before them got caught in a storm and sank, drowning everyone.

The family lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia for eight months before getting word that even though a widow and six children might seem like an economic risk, a church in Edmonton wanted to sponsor them.

“When we came over to Canada our family was a mother and six kids . . . what I understood is that not a lot of the other nations wanted our family because they thought that our family would be a burden to their community, to their economy,” Tran-Davies said.

Her mother was anxious when the plane landed in Edmonton, Alta., and feared getting off. Though she was relieved to be in a safer place, she didn’t know how a seamstress with little education could make it in a new country with six children. She didn’t know there was a group of sponsors waiting to help them.

But then they walked off the plane and saw the faces of the sponsors there to greet them. As the youngest, Tran-Davies doesn’t remember much, but does recall receiving a doll that she still has today.

“We had no idea how good we were going to have it, just because these sponsors were so wonderful to us,” she said.

A doll for the youngest

Nearly 40 years later, Tran-Davies is bringing that same peace to two families fleeing violence in Syria. Over the last few years she heard about the conflict in Syria and wondered how to help. Last summer she decided she could become a sponsor.

She wanted to bring over two families, so she asked two groups of friends for help. One was a group of former refugees and immigrants from Vietnam. The other was a group of children of the families that sponsored her all those years ago.

Nhung Tran-Davies, left, a 1979 refugee from Vietnam, poses for a photo with Basemah Albittar, center, a member of a newly arrived Syrian family Tran-Davies is helping to resettle in Canada. Interpreter Dalia Abddellatif is on the right. — Nhung Tran-Davies

Nhung Tran-Davies, left, a 1979 refugee from Vietnam, poses for a photo with Basemah Albittar, center, a member of a newly arrived Syrian family Tran-Davies is helping to resettle in Canada. Interpreter Dalia Abddellatif is on the right. — Nhung Tran-Davies

They were matched with two Syrian families through Mennonite Central Committee Alberta’s refugee sponsorship program. Inspired by the church that sponsored her, Tran-Davies asked for families that would be harder to settle, for groups larger than four.

In one of those families, a mother with five children coming with her mother and brother, Tran-Davies saw parallels to her own family. She even brought a doll to the airport for the youngest girl, just as some had done for her.

“It does seem funny how life works out,” she said. “Forty years later . . . we’re in the same situation, but this time I am the sponsor.”

In those nearly 40 years, Tran-Davies went to medical school, became a doctor and now practices with her husband in rural Alberta. Her siblings have opened restaurants and worked as a car mechanic and a draftsperson.

“It’s left a very permanent mark in our hearts, and we try to live to honor their kindness,” she said.

Now that both Syrian families have arrived, the sponsors are getting to know them and helping with things like registering for health care and language class and going to doctor’s visits and school. Tran-Davies believes that with time and resources, these families will succeed.

“I truly believe that their kids will help make Canada more beautiful,” she said. “In 40 years, I look forward to seeing the kids’ accomplishments and see what they will do for Canada.”

In the U.S., MCC does not directly resettle refugees but encourages churches and individuals to welcome refugees.


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