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From Vietnam Refugees to Her Extended Family : Relationships: Counselor Anne-Thu Pham of Santa Ana keeps in touch with many of the Amerasians she met 5 years ago.

January 25, 1994|SHEARLEAN DUKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Anne-Thu Pham heard the boy singing a song in perfect Vietnamese, she was impressed. His looks seemed very "American" to her, so she complimented him in English on his command of her native language. But the boy merely stared at her. Irritated, Anne-Thu muttered to herself in Vietnamese, "How rude!"

The boy's face brightened. In Vietnamese, he quickly apologized, explaining that he did not speak English. The boy, an Amerasian from Vietnam, had just arrived at the Philippines Refugee Processing Center where Anne-Thu had begun working as a counselor.

That was five years ago. Since then, Anne-Thu, 29, of Santa Ana has met hundreds of Amerasians who look "American" but are Vietnamese. Still, she has never forgotten the boy she heard singing in the refugee camp.

His name is Hai Duy Pham. Now 21, he is a college student in Kent, Wash. He is one of about 35 former refugees who have become part of Anne-Thu's extended family. She calls them "my Amerasian kids." They call her aunt or sister. And although most of them are now scattered across the United States, Anne-Thu keeps in touch with them by letter and by phone.

Some, such as Hai, who spent several days recently with the Anne-Thu's family, plan their vacations so they can visit. Occasionally Anne-Thu also visits them. "I've made a deal with all of them that when they graduate, I'd go to their graduation wherever it is," she says.

She kept that promise when Hai graduated from high school. And when he got ready to enroll at college, he asked her to go to Washington to help him register. "He said, 'I don't think I can go to college. Can you help me?' So, I went."

Anne-Thu is proud of Hai's accomplishments, but Hai is quick to give Anne-Thu credit. "I went to college because of her," says Hai, who now speaks fluent English. "I planned to go to work one year and then back to college, but she told me, 'No, that's not a good plan.' I trust her judgment and know that she cares about me."

During Hai's recent visit, another of the refugees Anne-Thu keeps in touch with came to visit.

Phong Tran, 20, from San Jose, drove all night so that he could spend a day or two visiting with Hai and Anne-Thu before returning to his job at a furniture store.

While the two young men were here, Anne-Thu, who now works as a youth and family counselor for the Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc., took them to one of the local schools where she counsels students and showed them off. "They are my pride and joy," she says.

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Anne-Thu's original commitment as a guidance counselor to the Amerasian youngsters in the Philippines was for six months.

She never imagined that she would establish such long-term personal relationships with so many of them. And she has a hard time explaining even to her own family why she cares so much for young immigrants such as Hai and Phong.

"My brother yells at me a lot because I volunteer a lot," says Anne-Thu, who lives with her parents and two younger sisters. "Vietnamese have a misconception that Amerasians are bad kids," she says. "But I don't think so."

Anne-Thu's own family--including her Vietnamese parents and seven sisters and three brothers--came to America 18 years ago.

The sons and daughters of Vietnamese women and American men stationed in Vietnam during the war began coming to America in 1988 as a result of the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which made them eligible for quick resettlement in the United States.

Since then about 2,000 have settled in Orange County's Little Saigon area of Westminster, according to Peter Daniels, coordinator of Amerasian Services at St. Anselm's Cross Cultural Community Center in Garden Grove. Thousands more have settled in other parts of the country.

In the years following the Vietnam War, Amerasian children lived in Vietnam as impoverished castaways, rejects in a society that referred to them as "the dust of life."

The Amerasian Homecoming Act was designed offer the children a better life in America, however, it had the unintended side effect of turning some into a commodity. Families who wanted to move to the United States would often pay gold for the opportunity to pose as part of the Amerasian's family so they could accompany the youngster to the U.S. The Amerasians who were traded upon in this way became known as "gold children."

Many Amerasians had little formal education in Vietnam, some were ill-treated, and many "gold children" were abandoned once they arrived in the United States.

Anne-Thu recalls one gold child who moved to America, only to be kicked out by his "parents" after he became too old to qualify for government aid. "I gave him my address and I said, 'No matter what happens, contact me,' " she says. "His family abused him, so he contacted my family, and my family told me about it. I knew he had uncles here, and they took him in."

At the refugee center in the Philippines, Anne-Thu says, she was never sure whether an Amerasian was with his real parents or his "gold" parents.

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