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Coming Full Circle: A Vietnam Refugee's Story

April 23, 2015

Son Michael Pham escaped Vietnam with his family the day before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. They resettled in the U.S. and Son became a successful businessman. Later moving to Seattle, he founded Kids Without Borders, a nonprofit which aids needy children in Vietnam and all over the world.

Penny LeGate: North Vietnamese forces begin their final attack on Saigon. 19-years-old Son Michael Pham, his parents and 4 siblings are in grave danger.

Son Michael Pham: My father is a high ranking officer in the military and in charge of the Saigon port. He worked for the Americans, same as my mother who worked for an American company in Saigon. Our life would be in imminent danger if we stayed.

LeGate: Huddling around America's Armed forces radio...they hear the secret code to evacuate.

Pham: It was “White Christmas” followed by announcement it is 105 degrees in saigon and rising. When we heard the song and the announcement we knew it was time to go. 

LeGate: Son's father has an escape plan in place--a fully provisioned tugboat waiting at the harbor.  First, though, the family has to get there. Son's youngest brother is a polio victim.

Pham (back middle) and his family in Saigon in 1974.

Pham: My brother had to be strapped to my back because he couldn’t walk. And we had to work very hard not to be separated in the chaos.

LeGate: Paint a picture for me of what Saigon was like that day.

Pham: Lotta gunshots firing in the air.. jets above us, explosions in city…it was just a madhouse everywhere around the city.

LeGate: What happened when you got down to the harbor?

Pham: No boat…. somebody...our boat was taken...

LeGate: It'd been stolen?

Pham: Stolen.

LeGate: There was a Plan B, get to the U.S. Embassy for air evacuation. But getting through the chaotic streets now made that impossible. So Son's family turned to Plan C, head for a prearranged meeting place for sea evacuation with other American sympathizers.

Pham: By the time we got to the pier..the last tugboat that whole sea way evacuation was over at that time when we arrived there. 

LeGate: The family was now out of options. But two large cargo ships are in port for repairs.

Pham: Some people out of desperation, people climb up on ships...and out of desperation we did the same thing. Believe it or not...the ship packed with people, the rope got taken off…the engine got fired up and later found out it was the ship-- the very next to last ship that left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

LeGate: Son remembers watching Saigon disappear in the distance.

Pham: I told myself take a good look at this it could be last time to see skyline of where I was born and grew up.

LeGate: Son's family managed to survive two weeks at sea with only rainwater to drink. The ship eventually made it to a U.S. Naval base in the Philippines.  The Phams were sent to resettlement camps--first in Guam, and then in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.  In Chicago, Catholic Charities offered to sponsor them so that's where these refugees began their new life in the U.S.A.

Pham: And Chicago is a good place to get yourself ready for America. It’s a tough city and we were tough people.

A picture of Pham in front of the Chicago skyline.

LeGate: Son got an education, became a successful hotel developer and moved to Seattle in 1988. In 1999, Son Michael decided to return to Vietnam. It was a risk--not knowing if he would be jailed upon arrival because he'd fled the country. That didn't happen but he was forever changed finding his homeland wracked by crippling poverty.

Pham: The very first trip back was very difficult but it was the beginning of another chapter in my life…but one thing that touched me the most..was the children. And on this trip just happened to visit two orphanages.. I saw the kind of disabilities they had, lack of things to take care of them in these places…and then I walked out and went back to my hotel, where I had running water, TV, food to eat…well, it didn’t take long to remind me that’s the way we were in 1975, when we came to America we didn’t have anything…other people help us so…just like a cycle that went around, that we have something  we can do something for other people 

LeGate: So, Son came back and started his own nonprofit called Kids Without Borders (KWB).

Pham: The idea of Kids Without Borders, our mission, is to involve and inspire youth in service worldwide.

Kids Without Border volunteers sort donated clothes.

LeGate: This storage space in Sammamish is KWB's "international headquarters."  The all volunteer organization doesn't invest in offices or fancy brochures... it simply teaches youth how to give back to those in need.  Even the small ways are important--like collecting books, clothes, and toys.  Today these young volunteers are helping sort donated clothing. About 70% of KWB's work is local...A big part of it--helping immigrants like Son was years ago.

Pham: We work with so many refugees here and they went through the same thing I went through 40 years ago.

LeGate: The other 30% of the work happens around the world, the bulk of it in Vietnam. Son leads big groups there every year.

Pham: We’ve been able to arrange volunteers from around the world to go and spend time there, use skills and talents in orphanages, everything from nurses, physical therapists spend 2 weeks, month there, training staff, working with children.

Pham (right) and his wife, Judy Pham (left), share a laugh.

LeGate: Katrina Dohn traveled to Vietnam on one of Son's "Humanitours" a few years ago. She watched the orphans go wild when he showed up.

Katrina Dohn: Uncle Son, uncle Son, they come running.. they know who he is…sheer joy.. big hugs. Son just has ability to see the needs and quietly find a way to meet them. 

Pham comforts a sick child at a Vietnamese orphanage.

Pham: I travel to Vietnam about 3 times a year.  So that’s our vacation now…and on my way back I plan for the next trip...and on way back from that trip I plan the next one.

LeGate: Son's become a respected community leader with his hands in all sorts of service organizations--he even helped design the Vietnam exhibit at the Wing Luke Asian Museum. 

Pham: This is the flag that was flown in D.C. when i became a citizen.

LeGate: He's also received international recognition for his global outreach--building schools and water systems, providing clothes, education, medical care, and more--but his greatest contribution is simply giving love. Son will never forget the generous american welcome his family got 40 years ago. He's now come full circle--by sharing, and showing others the joy of giving back. 

Pham: That’s how we change our community and our world.

Photo courtesy of Son Michael Pham.



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I have traveled to Vietnam with Uncle Son (Chu Son) on three of his trips. My first trip back with Son Michael was in 2004. Having been there in 1966-67 in the Army, I did not know what to expect. Son Michael makes the trip very easy and rewarding and I was encouraged by how friendly the people were, both in the South as well as in Hanoi. Visiting the orphanages and the children from Hanoi to Saigon was a life changing experience for me. There were some emotional moments at some of the war museums as I lost a number of my close friends there during the war. But the trips are always rewarding, especially when you visit the same orphanages and see the same children as they grow up.
Son Michael does so much for his people in Vietnam and the children through his organization Kids Without Borders. He is a true example of what 'giving back' means. Pope Francis should meet him, they have the same goals!

I met Son in Vietnam, my wife runs an Australian aid organisation called Artists For Orphans.. She and Son work together for the benefit of the many children in Vietnam..

I have enormous respect for the work Son does and the skills he uses to enlist so many people to support his work..

The happy smiling faces of the children, who mostly have nothing, is the biggest reward you experience, mind you when they graduate from their respective colleges and take their position is Vietnamese society to help their country is also a huge bonus

And I complain over the little things, forgive me Lord. Thank you for Son and his work.

i was military policeman at ft chaffee arkansas who was part of operation new life and operation new life from off the coast on vietnam to us mainland

My husband and I traveled once (so far) with Son to Vietnam. In addition to giving the kids love and support, he helps the kids learn how to support themselves. We ate at a "restaurant" where it was all trainees doing the cooking and waiting tables. Son funded a secretarial position for one of "his kids" in an NGO office. Others on the trip funded education for a promising young person. Son was also partnering with a factory that hired disabled individuals to manufacture motorcycle helmets. The factory supplied wheel chairs, handicap accessible working conditions and a hot meal to all the employees, giving these disabled individuals the means to be contributing members of their families and society, in a society where that opportunity is not often there. The factory was a for-profit business and it was a showcase for other businesses, demonstrating that physically handicapped people are highly employable. The factory also donated motorcycle helmets to elementary schools so the kids would learn to wear helmets and not get head injuries (teaching their parents in the process). Son was partnering and contributing in all phases of this work. Son and his wonderful wife, Judy, are shining examples of what tremendous good can be done by determined individuals. Thank you, Son. Thank you, Penny LeGate and KCTS9 for sharing these wonderful stories with all of us.

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