The Journey Through Trauma and Loss: A Refugee's Story

Eye on LSSI, Fall 2006 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Vinh Thai loved working at the Fannie Mae candy factory in Chicago. It offered him decent pay and good benefits. But life changed when the company closed the factory in 2004 because of financial problems. Vinh lost his job. He had no support network, spoke little English and had a two-year-old son who depended on him. For the six months that he received federal unemployment compensation, his finances were OK. After that, Vinh relied on his dwindling savings and the odd and infrequent day laborer work he could get. His brother, who also lived in Chicago, was recently unemployed himself and was unable to help, as he was trying to support a wife and three children and lived in a tiny apartment. Months dragged on, and the money ran out. Vinh was unable to find permanent work. He felt that he had failed on a promise to his father, who had sent him on a harrowing journey to America some 15 years earlier to find a better life. The two beers that had become routine after work grew into a chronic all-day palliative now that he was unemployed. One day in September 2005, however, no amount of alcohol could ease the pain. Vinh’s son, Johnny, was at day care. More than a year had passed since Vinh had lost his job, and he was feeling deeply depressed and anxious. Though his English was limited, he could communicate well enough to call 911 and say, “Please take care of my son. I’m going to jump.”

A cry for help

The Chicago police arrived in time, and Vinh did not jump. But his call for help, which probably saved his life, also complicated his situation. Seeing Vinh’s emotional state, the police called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), who in turn brought in Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), as well as a Vietnamese woman named Chau, who has become Vinh’s interpreter and lifeline. DCFS also took Johnny away and put him in foster care, a move that Vinh feared was permanent because he did not understand the system. Johnny’s mother is estranged from the family. LSSI, through its DCFS-funded Male Family Reunification Initiative program (MFRI), has been working with Vinh to help him decipher the DCFS maze and meet its requirements to get his son back. MFRI, which is offered at LSSI’s Edgewater Outpatient Program on Devon Avenue in Chicago, provides counseling and case management services to recovering alcoholics and substance abusers to help them become better fathers and providers. As a refugee, Vinh was an anomaly in the program. The language barrier and cultural differences presented initial challenges to Renell Jordan-Tieri, Vinh’s LSSI caseworker, and others involved in his treatment. Many men are reluctant to share their feelings in counseling, but Vinh’s hesitation ran deeper. He was extremely frightened and mistrustful. Part of his treatment included group therapy in LSSI’s Intensive Outpatient Group (IOP), led by Rose Dahn, LCSW. Vinh watched and listened, with Chau interpreting, as the other clients in the group described their own experiences with alcohol and drugs. The other participants were friendly to him, and because of their openness, he gradually developed a sense of belonging and trust. “This social aspect of sharing the good and the bad experiences of one another in group became a powerful tool for Vinh in learning to trust again,” says Dahn. Vinh eventually opened up. And the life story he told through Chau was “one that you only see on television,” says Jordan-Tieri. Vinh was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders.

Boat people, refugee camps

With Chau interpreting for him, Vinh, 39, shares his story. A slight, soft-spoken man, he reveals his nervousness with a twitching knee.

On April 28, 1990, 23-year-old Vinh fled Vietnam with his two younger brothers, Tuan and Toan, ages 17 and 13, on a small boat with 38 other people. He and the others were part of the last wave of the Vietnamese exodus that began after the war ended in the 1970s. Vinh’s father had instructed him to take care of his younger brothers and help them make a better life in the United States. Being in a small boat among large ships was terrifying for Vinh. The group spent four days at sea before reaching international waters and being rescued by a ship.

The ship took them to an unknown island near Indonesia, where they were left for three days and stripped of all their belongings and money by Indonesian soldiers. From there they were taken to another Indonesian island, called Jemaja, to a temporary refugee-screening camp called Kuku. The 18 days at Kuku is still vivid in Vinh’s memory. He and his brothers, who were only given a one-half can of milk, two cans of water and one can of rice each, had to forage for food in the nearby forest. They also witnessed atrocities: Indonesian soldiers repeatedly raping female refugees and torturing the men with such techniques as burying them in hot sand up to their necks and holding them under water.

After Kuku, they were transferred to Pulau Galang Island, Indonesia, to a U.N.-run refugee camp where they were to be processed for resettlement. At Galang, Vinh says, he did not see refugees tortured like they were at Kuku, but food was still scarce. His monthly rations consisted of 10 cans of rice, one-half can of concentrated milk, one-half can of beans, one-half can of soybeans, three cans of sardines and one bottle of oil.

Vinh and his brothers lived in the Galang camp for six years, waiting to be processed. He says one had to be patient, because there were a lot of refugees and it took time to check all of their backgrounds. But he remained hopeful that someday he would be sent to the United States.

Those hopes were dashed in 1996 when the U.N. ended its Vietnamese refugee program and closed the Galang camp. Vinh and his brothers were sent back to Vietnam.

Then two years later, Vinh and one of his brothers miraculously were allowed to leave Vietnam and relocate in the United States under refugee status. Vinh thinks that it was because he had lied to Galang camp officials and told them that his father lived in the United States. His one brother was allowed to leave because his wife’s father actually does live here, while the third brother had no tie to the United States.

American dream?

First, Vinh lost his job, then his son. Life seems to have gone from bad to worse. But with the LSSI team’s help, Vinh has made progress and is “still going, still fighting,” as Jordan-Tieri says. He has stopped drinking and says he feels less depressed and much more comfortable. He completed the IOP and has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He is keeping up with DCFS’s requirements of individual counseling and attending classes on parenting and on domestic violence.

“He came here to address substance abuse, but he found a connection to the world — he learned how to talk to others,” says Dawn Trushke, director of Edgewater Outpatient. “The agency was able to fulfill [needs in] so many parts of his life.”

Dahn explains, “The connection he has found with others has proven essential to both his recovery and psychological healing.”

His most fervent desire today is to have Johnny, now four, returned to him. The judgment as to whether he is capable of caring for his son rests solely with DCFS. This means, in part, that Vinh must find a job. He has solid experience as a butcher, a cook and a factory worker, but not being able to speak English is a significant barrier in his finding work. He wants to take English classes, but lacks the money to pay for them. And he wants to search for employment during the day, but attending the various counseling sessions and classes has impeded him.

The DCFS system was not designed around the special needs of immigrants, and Jordan-Tieri has advocated and challenged the rules on Vinh’s behalf when necessary. She has also helped ward off an eviction from his apartment, securing a rental subsidy for him, and has found him health care services through the Heartland Alliance.

“I will always be grateful to Renell for supporting me and helping with my housing,” says Vinh. “She is always there when I need her.”

As for Jordan-Tieri, she is resolute in reuniting Vinh and Johnny. “There is something about Vinh. I don’t know what it is. You just want to help him.”

For information on the Edgewater Outpatient Program and the Male Family Reunification Initiative, call 773/764-4350.