‘Chasing Memories’ In Their Refugee Camp 40 Years After Fleeing Vietnam

July 4, 2015

My mother’s family fled communism twice.

The first time was from China. Then, after Saigon fell in 1975, they left Vietnam.

My mother, Kuo Nam Lo, was 24 when she spent her first few months in the U.S. at a refugee camp at a military base along a stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in central Pennsylvania.

“I’ve always wanted to come back here,” my mother told me in Cantonese on a recent drive through Fort Indiantown Gap. “Son, you’ve made my dream come true.”

It was the first time she had returned after she left to re-start her life in Philadelphia 40 years ago.

We kept driving until we arrived at a banquet hall on the base. About 200 other refugees and their families — plus a few Army reservists and volunteers who worked at the camp – gathered there for a 40-year reunion on a rainy weekend in late June.

Some of the former refugees stayed overnight in army barracks down the road. They slept in bunk beds and tried to relive camp life. Mary Pham, 61, said coming back felt like returning to where she started her second life as an American.

“In my heart, I feel like this is my birthday,” she said with a laugh after greeting other returning refugees at the registration table.

Pham, who gave birth to her oldest son in the camp and now lives in Newport Beach, Calif., was one of the reunion’s organizers. They decorated the wood-paneled hall with miniature American and South Vietnamese flags. Before dinner, they handed each person a copy of a meal card that refugees used to eat at mess halls on the base in 1975.

“Every day we had to get in line and show the card to get the meal,” Pham explained. “We want to do exactly like 40 years ago.”

Back then, Fort Indiantown Gap was one of four processing centers in the U.S. for refugees from Vietnam. It was opened shortly after the U.S. government realized that Camp Pendleton, Calif., Fort Chaffee, Ark., and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., would not be enough to process all of the refugees waiting to be resettled from temporary camps in Guam, the Philippines and other parts of the Pacific, according to a 1981 report on the refugee program commissioned by the U.S. Army Forces Command.

Before they were eventually taken in or sponsored out by American families, around 22,000 refugees passed through Fort Indiantown Gap’s camp, which George Padar, a retired colonel in the Army Reserve, helped run.

“We understood that there were people who lost their home. This was their home for now,” Padar explained. “We were here to prepare them to become good American citizens, which they have. Look at the engineers, the doctors, the singers, the young people, the grandchildren.”

Padar, a refugee himself from Hungary after World War II, helped organize the reunion. These events, he said, are important to keeping family history alive.

“We want to believe that we can go back to the way things were, but then we finally realize that it’s not possible. So we’re chasing memories,” he said. “Some people are disappointed. For others, it brings closure, or it renews their spirits to get back into their past life.”

Four decades ago, Thang Nguyen of Lancaster, Pa., was a 25-year-old South Vietnamese sailor, who came to the camp with no family and having lost a country to serve. He spent evenings looking up at the mountains outside his barracks. “Foggy and sad” are how he remembers them.

“You’d have nothing to do and just walk around,” he said about his time in the camp.

None of these immigrants spent more than six months or so at Fort Indiantown Gap. But a persistent pull to reconnect with others who were there remains strong.

After the reunion ended, my mom told me that she was disappointed. “Not a single person I knew was there,” she said in Cantonese.

Sixty-six-year-old Be Nguyen (no relation to Thang Nguyen) told me he, too, felt let down. Before he left the camp in 1975, he passed around a notebook and asked his friends to each write a farewell letter.

One of his friends, Phung Quang Hoa, wrote in Vietnamese: “I do not know what to write while there is a feeling of emptiness in my mind.”

None of those friends who wrote letters came to the reunion. Be Nguyen, who now lives in Harrisburg, Pa., said he only knows their names.

“I hope that I can see more of my friends before my life ends,” he told me.

Refugees like him, he said, left the camp like birds fleeing their nest, scattered in different directions. Now, 40 years later, he’s not sure what or where everyone calls home.

If you know the whereabouts of Be Nguyen’s friend, Phung Quang Hoa, please contact the reporter at hwang@npr.org.

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