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Viet Refugees Reunited Through Photograph

July 06, 1989|PHILIPP GOLLNER | Times Staff Writer

For Quang Giap, any hope of seeing his parents and eight brothers and sisters again seemed to have vanished the night of April 29, 1975, as Communist forces took over Saigon.

That night, Giap, a second lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Special Forces, joined thousands of other soldiers who fled their homeland, afraid of being imprisoned or executed for fighting alongside the Americans. His family stayed behind.

Giap spent two months in Guam and eventually settled in Canoga Park. His letters home went unanswered, and with each passing year, the possibility that his relatives had survived the bloodshed in Saigon seemed to him to become ever more remote.

Then, leafing through The Times in June last year, he spotted a familiar face.

"First, I didn't believe it," Giap, now 42, recalled recently. "I thought I was looking at something else and I looked at it again, and I said, 'That's my sister!' "

Shown in Refugee Camp

His sister, Giap Thi Ly, was pictured with two of her sons in a photo accompanying an article about a refugee center in the Philippines. The sister, who had been married to an American civilian living in South Vietnam during the war, left Vietnam with her six children under an agreement that allows Amerasian children and their relatives to emigrate.

Giap, who was taking a break at his former job at a Chatsworth machine shop when he saw the photo, told his boss of the discovery. The boss called The Times and was told that Giap should call the newspaper's Manila bureau.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Giap contacted reporter Mark Fineman, then The Times' Manila correspondent, who relayed Giap's address and phone number to the man's sister at the refugee camp.

The letter Giap got from his sister several weeks later ended 13 years of silence. His family in Vietnam was alive and well, the letter said. She also said she and her children were planning to move to the United States in the next month.

A year after Giap Thi Ly stepped off an airplane at Los Angeles International Airport to join her brother in the United States, the 45-year-old homemaker this week celebrated her first Fourth of July, including the fireworks show at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. It was a celebration not only of new-found freedom, but also of new responsibilities and challenges in an alien land.

Her children have more opportunities here, she said, but she misses her Vietnamese second husband and the other family members that she left behind.

"My children can do what they want to do," she said, her English still heavily accented. "In Vietnam, it's very hard. You do too much work for nothing. But it's very difficult for me. I don't know how to write English, I don't know what streets to go to."

Giap Thi Ly lives with her four youngest children in an apartment on Cohasset Street in Canoga Park, only a few blocks from her brother's home. Her two eldest sons work at a Chatsworth electronics firm and live with her brother. She too wants a job, but she said it will take more months of English instruction at a local occupational center before her language skills are good enough.

The most difficult part of moving to the United States, she said, was giving up many of the close family ties that provided strength in times of need.

She lived with her parents, two brothers, two sisters, her husband and children in an apartment in Saigon. "My big family, we all lived together," she said. "Everyday, I saw them. It makes me very sad."

She said her husband, a Saigon bus driver, has applied to emigrate, but so far, the government has not granted his request.

Giap, for his part, said he had no choice but to emigrate. Nor does he have any regrets, for life in the United States has been good to him: He married a fellow Vietnamese refugee shortly after immigrating and has three sons. A successful computer programmer with a Van Nuys aerospace firm, he lives with his family in a comfortable home on Laramie Avenue.

Although his parents and siblings still live thousands of miles away, forbidden by the Hanoi government to leave Vietnam, Giap said regular correspondence with them has replaced years of silence, thanks to the chance discovery of his sister's picture in a newspaper.

"My whole family, they are healthy," he said. "My brothers and sisters, they are all married and have families and are doing real well."

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