Refugee family shares its story of Saigon's fall, will reunite with sponsor

Every year, as spring breathes new life into the world, it also brings a choking reminder of loss, of a world left behind for thousands of Vietnamese people. April 30, 1975 would come to symbolize upheaval, fractured families, and the loss of hope. It would be the Fall of Saigon.

Lan Nguyen was in Saigon when it fell to the communist regime of North Vietnam. American troops left, and the city crumbled into chaos. Lan escaped on a boat with her husband Loc, never saying goodbye to her parents.

"We have to go in the cargo and we lay on the floor -- a lot of us on the floor, don't have restrooms, don't have anything at all," described Lan Nguyen. "So when I lay down, I say, 'Oh, maybe I have a bad dream. When I wake up, I wake up in my house,' because I miss my parents so much."

"It was gut-wrenching," said Robert Buzzanco, a professor of history at the University of Houston. "They lost everything. Many of them lost family, right? People who died in the war, couldn't make it, couldn't escape. Some of them were sent into re-education camps, which were essentially prison camps. Most of them left everything behind."

Lan and her husband arrived in Arkansas where a sponsor, named Mary Ellen Dixon, took them in, found them a place to live, taught them English and gave them food. She even drove Loc to work every single day.

"When my husband and his friend get a job, they don't have a car," explained Lan. "She have to take them to work and take them back home until they save enough money to buy their own car."

"When my parents came over here, they met a total stranger, her name was Mary Dixon, and she took in my parents and two other couples and put them up in an apartment through her church and own money, and it's hard for me to understand that because I don't think that could happen in today's world," said Thomas Nguyen, the son of Lan and Loc.

A kind stranger whom these refugees in a strange new world would never forget. The Nguyen family eventually left to start a new life, but it was a lonely one, and for Lan, crushing in its sorrow.

"She lived 30 years in Vietnam," said Thomas. "That's a life. That's most of my life. All of a sudden, that's gone. You're a stranger in a new country, and there were nights she didn't want to go home because it wasn't even a home."

"Sometimes, I sit on the train and I just let it go round and round because every stop, I want to look and see if I can see any familiar face," said Lan. She never did.

Eventually, the Nguyen family made its way to Texas where the only child Thomas was raised in Katy. There, he saw discrimination his parents faced, the bullying his father endured because of his heavy accent.

"It's difficult when you're 6 or 7 years old, and your dad is furious but he doesn't know what to do because he has to provide for the family, and he can't lash out," said Thomas. "He cant do anything and its built in and those are things you remember as a child."

The Nguyens experience wasn't singular.

In the 70's, when thousands of poor Vietnamese refugees from fishing villages arrived in Houston and became shrimpers, racial tensions erupted.
"In Kemah, there was a really terrible situation where the KKK came out because a lot of these guys who had been shrimping, white guys, were upset that the Vietnamese were coming into the area, and so the KKK came out and threatened the Vietnamese…there were gunshots exchanged," said Buzzanco.

It was a tumultuous start to the beginning of the Vietnamese community in Houston. Now, about 40 years later, the Vietnamese community here thrives at more than 100,000 people. In the heart of Bellaire. the Vietnamese built a memorial -- an American and a Vietnamese soldier side by side in combat --to honor the sacrifices of Americans who died in their homeland. It's a symbol of harmony and gratitude for a group once ostracized but now, celebrated in Houston.

Within this community, this son of poor refugees would eventually go on to earn his law degree from ut Austin. Now, Thomas is an owner of a popular restaurant in the Galleria.

But children of immigrants often forget the suffering their parents go through. They have a tough enough time dueling with their dual identities.

"It wasn't until recently that I understood man, that's -- I should be ashamed for not understanding why that's an important date, especially being Vietnamese-American. I have to know that date. Vietnamese people are different because everyone shares the same story. Almost every Vietnamese person came over that is in Houston came over here sometime after 1975 as a result of escaping Vietnam and coming here for an opportunity for another life," said Thomas.

That opportunity was made possible by the kindness of a stranger decades ago, one the Nguyens left and couldn't find again.

But Fox 26's Angela Chen looked and found Mary Ellen Dixon in Arkansas and after 41 years, reconnected her to the Nguyens.

Mary Ellen Dixon had never forgotten the culture the Nguyens brought into her home.

"I spoke to both my children just before I talked to you, and they are so grateful for the experience. Both of them say it has changed their whole lives and their whole perspective and made them more empathetic toward other people. And Loc was the one who loved to do the cooking, and he always had this great big sunny smile on his face, and my son said 'Loc was my favorite because he made the best french fries in the whole wide world.' My son was 6 at the time, and my daughter was 3," said Dixon.

Just as the Nguyens changed her children's lives, so has Mary Ellen for Thomas.

Someone took a chance his parents so now, he's giving it back and has devoted his life to helping different groups around Houston, like the Sunshine Kids, MD Anderson, and Star of Hope.

And whenever the 30th of April comes, they remember and pray for all they've lost and all they've found.

"I want people to remember the communists and the 30th of April a really terrible day for us, for our country," said Lan.

"I don't want kids growing up waiting until they're 39 to really appreciate what their parents did for them and the sacrifice and the story. That story needs to be told and retold. It should never be forgotten. Our parents shouldn't be the only ones thinking about April 30th," said Thomas.