Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Lieu Nguyen, senior refugee referral specialist at Catholic Charities Atlanta, as told to Heather Buckner.
Before April 1975, I was a senior lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Navy. After the fall of Saigon, I was imprisoned in a reeducation camp for five years. When I got out, I used a small boat to come to Indonesia with my wife and daughter and other refugees, and I lived on Galang Island in a refugee camp 13 months. On August 26, 1982, I arrived to the USA in Los Angeles. The next day, [the International Organization for Migration] took me to the airport to come to Atlanta. When I came to Atlanta, my sponsor, Father Francis, he’s on vacation. So, they called [Catholic Social Services, now Catholic Charities Atlanta], and Mr. Tam Bui welcomed me at the airport. I was very happy and didn’t know that they would meet me at the airport: Why? I’m a refugee. They gave me a room in Hapeville, in a house with another family. The day after, my sponsor rented for my family a two-bedroom apartment on Meadow Road. In ’85, I bought my own house in Atlanta on Capitol Avenue.
Later, Mr. Tam Bui came to church and asked me, Lieu, you want to work with me? I said no. Then, my pastor, Father Francis, said, Lieu, you must work there. You understand [refugees] and what they’ve been through. You are the right person to help them. I told him, Father, I don’t know English. These [government] offices speak English, not Vietnamese. How can I help them? I didn’t agree with him, so he called my wife. They all agreed I was a perfect fit, but it took many levels of convincing—from the director to the father to my wife, who is the ultimate decisionmaker. On June 1 this year, I have 32 years working at Catholic Charities. [In another interview,] they asked, What is it about Catholic Charities that keeps you doing this? Catholic Charities is just a place that pays me. My job as one of God’s children is to love and take care of my brothers and sisters.
Today, I am a senior refugee referral specialist. Until 2006, I was a case manager, and case managers do everything: come to the rent appointment, help them buy food, help them apply for food stamps, social security card, take them to the health center, to their appointment for the doctor, looking for a job. I cannot tell you how many times I was there at the airport [meeting refugees]. From 1990 to 2000, I only had Saturdays and Sundays not at the airport. Every Friday night, I was in the airport. They called me Mr. Midnight.
When a family first arrives, they’re stressed, struggling to understand the culture. But once they start working and they realize that they can be on their own, it’s a really rewarding feeling to see the stress and the worry slowly disappear from the family. It doesn’t disappear completely, but you can see that they are finding their way and forging their own path.
There are some people that came here with higher education, who are doctors or had a prestigious role back in their home country and were hoping to regain that immediately—not realizing they will have to start all over again. Sometimes, you don’t have any proof of your XYZ background or your English is not strong enough. Or you don’t have your own mode of transportation—especially here in Georgia. You need to start all over again. I know it will hurt your pride, but it shouldn’t. You should be even more prideful that you are able to overcome this hurdle twice now.
In the USA, we have written on the money “In God We Trust.” God has gifted America with so much fortune. It’s not for us to hoard that gift or hoard resources. It is important to share. The USA was built off of a lot of immigrants. They shouldn’t villainize the refugees we help. Why are we trying to make them feel like they’re not welcome? If God says, “Love all people,” let’s love all people.
When I was in the reeducation camp, I talked with God: If I can come back home, all my life, I will work to pay this back. Everything, I got from God—this is me giving back for all that was given to me.
We must have many Lieus in the USA.
Jimmy Lai, a refugee resettlement specialist at Catholic Charities Atlanta, helped translate some of Nguyen’s answers, which have been slightly edited for clarity.
This article appears in our July 2022 issue.