As the former director of the Immigration and Refugee Department of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Nam Loc Nguyen visited more than 15 refugee camps around the world.
But the 78-year-old Huntington Beach resident says his mission of helping immigrants and refugees isn’t done. It’s just now closer to home.
Nguyen was recently selected as the first-ever Orange County ambassador for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The new federal program taps community leaders around the country to promote citizenship through their own immigrant experiences. Aside from Orange County, other ambassadors have been placed in Boston, Miami, and Minneapolis, to name a few.
As one of the eight ambassadors, Nguyen will help support the large Vietnamese immigrant community in Southern California.
Nguyen moved to Huntington Beach in 2016 from Monterey Park after he retired from his four-decade career with Catholic Charities.
“I always left feeling I had not finished my work,” he said.
Here is a look at the new program and how Nguyen is jumping into the position.
Q: What is your role as an ambassador for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services?
A: We will promote citizenship to the 9.1 million permanent residents living in the U.S. who are eligible to apply but have not.
Q: What are some of the reasons people don’t apply for citizenship?
A: Many have misconceptions about the rules and regulations. For instance, no one has explained to them that they can use their own language to take the test.
People think the test is impossibly hard. Applying for citizenship costs $800, and many people say, “Why should I spend the money if I can’t pass the test?” We try to explain to them, “Look at some of your family members who have passed. If they can, you can, too.” We tell them about websites and materials that can help them study.
People also don’t know that if they are poor, they can get a fee waiver.
Q: What advice do you give other Vietnamese refugees living in Southern California?
A: I remind them that we all ran away from a communist country looking for human rights, freedom, and democracy. Why would you risk your life to come here and not exercise your right to vote?
Once you can vote, you can raise your concerns with your council member or your congressman or woman. You can say, “We need low-income housing,” or you can speak on your children’s behalf at a school (board) meeting. And you can advocate for refugees like yourself — doing for others what U.S. citizens once did for you.
You have one vote; the president of the U.S. has one vote; a janitor has one vote, a billionaire has one vote. Voting is your equal right.
Q: Have you met the other seven ambassadors yet?
A: Only in Zoom meetings. We just had an intensive training. I am very impressed with all of them. I love their enthusiasm and experience.
Q: You have spent the past week in Washington, D.C. Was that for your new role as ambassador?
A: No, for a different mission, as a community activist. I am advocating for the 2,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled to Thailand and were left behind there all these years. Thailand does not recognize them as legal immigrants. They are still living in limbo, working illegally without any kind of support structure from Thailand.
We met with several Washington lawmakers, including congressmen and women. We want to find private sponsorship opportunities for these refugees and bring them to the U.S. and Canada so that, after 47 years, we can close the chapter of the Vietnamese refugee crisis.
Q: What was your own path to the U.S. like?
A: I was born in Hanoi. I first became a refugee at age 10, in 1954, when communists took North Vietnam. My family moved to the south where the people welcomed 1 million North Vietnamese refugees with open arms.
Saigon was my home until it fell to communism in 1975. Since I was in the military, I was the only one in my family — my parents and 10 siblings — who made it to the airport. I was on the last plane out. That’s why I cried when I saw the last U.S. plane leaving Afghanistan.
I came by myself to a refugee camp at Camp Pendleton (Marine Corps base in San Diego County). My whole family was left behind.
Q. What became of your family?
A: They all eventually escaped, by boat or through the jungle. Two of my brothers went to Kuwait and then to a refugee camp in Greece before joining me in the U.S. My family ended up in refugee camps all over the place. There was no internet at that time. It took me a while to find everyone.
Q: Did you have any formal education in Vietnam?
A. Yes. I left law school in Saigon to join the military. But my English was very bad when I came here. Later, I did try to go to USC to study public policy, but I had to work two jobs to help my family escape so I gave that up.
Q: What were your first jobs here, and what led you to Catholic Charities?
A. When I arrived at Camp Pendleton, I was depressed and couldn’t sleep. Every night, I would go to the Red Cross trailer to drink coffee and wait for the bus bringing refugees to the camp with the hope of reuniting with my family. I ended up volunteering for the Red Cross. Then I was hired as an employee for the U.S. Catholic Conference, one of the volunteer agencies on the base helping resettle refugees. That led to my job with Catholic Charities where I worked for 40 years.
Q: Were you raised Catholic, or did you convert to Catholicism later?
A: I never became a Catholic (laughter). I’m Buddhist. But over the years, I went to church more than I went to temple. It just shows that in the U.S., if you can do the work and do it well, it doesn’t matter what religion you are.
Q: You are a man of many talents. You also compose songs?
A: I never went to music school, and I don’t really know how to compose music well, but I do have the skills to write lyrics, and I play the guitar. When I was in the refugee camp, I wrote my first song, “Farewell Saigon.” It touched many refugees because it was what they were feeling. A well-known Vietnamese singer, Khanh Ly, made audio of it, with me playing the guitar, and suddenly the song went viral. It is still sung today, everywhere. It was a gift to my people.
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