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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Son's Duty : Lan Quoc Nguyen left Vietnam behind. But he will never escape the obligation he feels to help refugees and provide for his parents.

October 09, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers office is almost invisible, tucked into a far corner of a strip mall on the edge of Little Saigon. Inside, it is spare, decorated only with posters extolling human rights and postcards painted by Vietnamese refugees living in Asian detention camps.

On a hot Sunday, Lan Quoc Nguyen is about to settle in for a typical day's work as the supervising attorney for the Southern California branch of LAVAS. He and his staff will again pick up the often frustrating and labyrinthine job of reviewing case after case of a refugee who desperately wants asylum in a country--any country.

Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam by boat with his family and spent time in a Malaysian detention camp, believes this is his moral obligation. On top of his general law practice, he puts in 30 to 40 hours a week at LAVAS. And he volunteers even more time as a guest on radio and TV shows broadcast to the Vietnamese-speaking population in central Orange County, tailoring legal advice on everything from property law to traffic violations for an audience unfamiliar with federal and state laws.

There is no sense, however, that Nguyen is a careerist. His ground-floor Tustin law office is small, neat and functional--hardly the sort of sanctum designed to impress or intimidate. He dresses neatly but without flash. And although his passions are genuine, he has lived with them for so long--through years of his own persecution and confinement--that he speaks in matter-of-fact tones, with conviction but without missionary zeal.

Between his high-profile pro bono work and his commitment to upholding Vietnamese tradition by living with and supporting his elderly parents in Westminster, Nguyen says, smiling, that he is barely making it. "But I'm happy. That's more important. I spend long hours, but I think it's worth it. I do feel I have an obligation to the community to do this."

*

By the time he turned 14, life in Saigon had become intolerable for Nguyen and his family. It was 1979, and his father, a teacher, and oldest brother, a former soldier, were interned in "re-education camps."

"Security was tight in the Vietnamese government at the time, and persecution was rampant," Nguyen says. "Any intellectual family couldn't do anything, and we had a black mark on our history because of (supposed political activities) by other members of the family. We were always under surveillance by the authorities."

The rest of the family planned to escape by boat, but time and time again the attempts failed.

"You had to do everything secretly," Nguyen says. "Get a boat, find petroleum, get food and water, find people you could really trust. Some of the people would just rip you off and run, and you couldn't go to the police."

Seven times the plans went awry before the Nguyens could even get to a boat. Family members were turned in to authorities, jailed and later released. Finally, on the eighth try, the seven boys and their mother sailed away on a small boat with several other families.

During seven days at sea, they ran out of fuel and water before taking on other refugees from a smaller boat with an abundance of both. After weathering a fierce storm, the boat landed at Malaysia. The Nguyens were immediately processed into a detention camp, where they lived for 10 months before transferring to a transit camp in Kuala Lampur. After two months there, they emigrated to the United States with the help of sponsors in Orange County.

Nguyen's father was finally released in 1990 from the camp in Vietnam (the oldest brother had escaped with the others), but the government refused to allow him to join his family. He got a tourist visa to East Germany at about the time the Berlin Wall came down, Nguyen says. "When he arrived there he crossed into West Berlin, went to the nearest American embassy and applied for asylum.

"When I passed the bar, he was my first client. I was scared to death, because if I lost that case I didn't know what I was going to do."

Nguyen, a graduate of Hastings Law School in San Francisco, won his father's case. And with the family reunited, he was free to "work fully on behalf of refugees without worrying about retaliation against (my family) by the Vietnamese government."

*

Nguyen's experience as a refugee "is what I think drives him," says Van Tran, who also works at LAVAS. "He's seen as very committed, a very bright attorney who has a deep concern for the welfare of the refugees--his own people--as well as the community welfare.

"Lan is a person with a conscience, and that's what I find appealing about him. He doesn't forget his roots as a boat person. He's definitely one of the key members of the future generation of Vietnamese Americans in this community, and we can expect him to contribute more as the years go by."

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