Refugees from another war found peace in Brainerd

Not unlike today's Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Van Dinh-Kuno and 14 members of her family fled a civil war, hoping to seek refuge from reprisal by travelling thousands of miles to American shores. The difference was the war they fled was in Vietna...

The Dinh family, Vietnamese refugees who fled the fall of Saigon in 1975, disembark from the plane that took them to Minnesota, where they would later resettle in Brainerd. Photo courtesy of David Pearson.

Not unlike today's Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Van Dinh-Kuno and 14 members of her family fled a civil war, hoping to seek refuge from reprisal by travelling thousands of miles to American shores. The difference was the war they fled was in Vietnam, and the place they found refuge was a house at 1702 Oak St., Brainerd, Minn.

The Dinh family's journey to America began in 1975, as Saigon fell to the Communists. Their father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese military, and as that government was collapsing, they faced the worst if the North Vietnamese Army caught up with them.

"We're desperate, because he knows if the Communists come in, he will not survive," Van said.

In April, as city after city fell, the father, Hoi Dinh, had set out on foot with several of his sons to try and escape Vietnam. Having been educated stateside, he knew if he made it to America he would eventually be able to get his family out as well. However, the initial attempt to run proved fruitless, as the Communist forces had blocked all the land routes out.

On April 29, with the enemy at the city gates, the entire family now desperately searched for a way to flee. They received word that Saigon harbor was still open to those with a connection to the United States.


Hoi donned his uniform, brandished his ID from when he lived in America, and the Dinhs managed to secure passage on an abandoned Norwegian merchant freighter. With the help of ex-Vietnamese navy sailors who claimed they knew how to operate it, the refugees commandeered the freighter and steamed out of the harbor. As the vessel went down a narrow stretch of the Saigon river on its way to open ocean, they found the Communists had taken positions on both banks when they came under rocket fire.

After they reached open water, the freighter went idle and the Dinh family stood on the deck, witnessing the evacuation unfold around them as they waited to be picked up by a nearby U.S. Navy carrier. Van, then a 19-year-old university student, watched as American soldiers pitched allied helicopters over the side of the carrier into the ocean to make room for more aircraft to land. The event would later become an iconic symbol of the chaotic end of the war.

The next day, April 30, the refugees on the Norwegian freighter were told there was no room for them on the American carrier, so they made for Taiwan instead. Taiwan didn't want refugees, though, so their military opened fire in the direction of the Dinh family's freighter and towed others back into international waters.
"We got unwelcomed," Van remembered.

The ad hoc "crew" of the freighter was unskilled in navigation, so the ship floundered around the South China Sea as supplies dwindled. A three-day storm battered the refugees, but at least the rain gave them water to slake their thirst.

Eventually, they heard the drone of helicopter rotors approaching the boat.

U.S. personnel got out of the helicopters, gave the refugees food and medical attention, and told them how to steer the boat towards the Philippines. From there, it was a weeklong stay in a refugee camp in Guam, and then a plane ride to Fort Chaffee, Ark. It was at the U.S. military base that the story of the Dinh family began to intersect with that of Brainerd.

First Lutheran's sanctuary

David Pearson, the pastor of First Lutheran church in Brainerd, responded to a call from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service for churches to house Vietnamese refugees. At first they were due to take only a part of the 15-member Dinh family, with the rest going to nearby Bethany Lutheran. But the family insisted they stay together after their harrowing journey across the Pacific. So First Lutheran took them all.


Pearson and the church board knew what they had to do. With only a short time to prepare, their volunteers took a rundown house on Oak Street and remodeled it, right down to a vase of flowers on the table and food in the fridge. After the family arrived, they got the Dinhs winter clothing, and shuttled the kids to school.

Despite the fact they were completely starting over, the Dinh family became self-sustaining in a matter of months, Pearson remembered. After Hoi came to him with an envelope full of cash they had saved, Pearson helped pick out the family's first American car, a station wagon.

A far cry from Dr. Zhivago

In Vietnam, Van was a second-year education student at university, simply working for good grades while her parents took care of everything else. In America, Hoi quickly sent the children, who were old enough to work, to get employed, including young Van, who was still being taught English by church volunteers. She worked two jobs: the graveyard shift in the bakery at the Red Owl grocery store, and caring for special needs patients at the Brainerd State Hospital.

When she lived in the tropical climate of Vietnam, Van had longed to see snow for the first time, having become enamored with the idea by watching the film "Dr. Zhivago." After she moved to Brainerd, however, that girlish fantasy abruptly gave way to the harsh reality of winter in Minnesota. She walked to work to start her 11 p.m. shift at Red Owl, and walked back at 6 a.m. to take a shower before her 7 a.m. shift at the hospital. She only stayed home if there was a blizzard.

"I still feel the cold if I think of Minnesota," she said.

Van eventually continued her studies at the University of Minnesota, and still remembers how accommodating her teachers and classmates were.

Van now lives about 30 miles north of Seattle in Mukilteo, Wash., with her husband, Dave Kuno. In September, she helped organize a reunion between the Dinh family and the Pearson family in Washington state.


She also wants to come back to Brainerd and see where the Dinhs lived on Oak Street.

'This country is built by immigrants, we can't deny that'

As executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest at Everett Community College in Everett, Wash., Van has made a career of helping refugees like her navigate the bureaucratic red tape and the culture shock of becoming American. She and her staff teach refugees things like how to navigate the citizenship paperwork, and how to vote once they achieve their status.

In her view, America should thoroughly vet refugees but it should not outright bar them from coming in simply because of generalizations formed after the terrorist attack in Paris on Nov. 13. The nation has to have the means to adequately screen refugees, she said.

"I understand we need to protect our country, we need to protect our people," she said. "This country is built by immigrants, we can't deny that."

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or . Follow him on Twitter at .

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