Tom Huynh brings experience as Vietnamese refugee to West Valley City Council

Story and photo by EMILY ANDERSON

When he first arrived at Philippine First Asylum Center (PFAC) in the island province Palawan from Vietnam, Tom Huynh was shocked by the “horrible” conditions of the camp.

“It was a sad place, very depressing,” Huynh said. “But people had no choice.”

He was immediately placed in a 12-by-12 room with seven other people. His unit was given a card identifying everyone in the flat, which allowed them to obtain two cups of rice, one piece of broccoli and two pieces of fish to be divided among the occupants each day.

As Huynh was standing in line to collect the food during his first few days in the camp, he met a man in his 60s. The man told Huynh that he had a lot to learn in the coming years — the refugee camp was a whole new world.

The pair arrived at the front of the line. The fish given to the man was rotten, although there was a heap of fresh fish behind the refugee who had been assigned to pass out the rations. Huynh said he protested the unjust treatment, but the man stopped him. He told Huynh the pile of newly-caught fish was being saved for the distributor’s family and friends.

After thanking Huynh for standing up for him, the man said, “Tom, promise me that if you’re ever in a position of power, you will treat people fairly.”

Huynh said he has always remembered the man’s plea and it has influenced the way he lives his life.

Vietnamese refugee Tom Huynh has served on the West Valley City Council for six years.

Since coming to the U.S., Huynh has pursued a career in politics while working as a real estate agent. He was elected to the West Valley City Council in 2011, and is in his second term in the District 1 seat.

Huynh’s journey to government leadership began with his father’s efforts to defend his own government.

Journey to Safety

In the aftermath of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, in which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea to remove the Khmer Rouge from power, the Vietnamese military continued to fight against armed Cambodian groups who opposed the new regime until 1989.

The government continued to tap all men above age 18 for military service. Many of Huynh’s friends had been drafted to patrol the Cambodian borders. Many were killed. Some returned home with missing limbs, he said.

Huynh’s father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was killed in the Vietnam War when Huynh was 5 years old. This left his mother to care for her children alone, which included bribing military officials to keep Huynh out of the military.

When the financial pressure on his mother became too great, Huynh said he fled the country on a boat with his 15-year-old sister Tiet in 1986 to avoid being conscripted.

Between 1975 and 1995, others were leaving the country to escape economic despair brought on by U.S. sanctions and destruction left in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Huynh and 99 other refugees packed into a boat that was approximately 10 feet by 30 feet. The group was so densely crowded that Huynh was confined to a singular spot the entire trip.

At one point on the journey, the boat became lost. The party ran out of food and water, then people began dying.

“Everyone was scared to the point that they were like, ‘I see you and you see me, but we’re not human beings anymore,’” Huynh said. “They knew they were going to die.”

It was a miracle that Huynh made it to the refugee camp, he said.

“At that moment, I was not a religious guy,” Huynh said. “But I looked into the sky and I said, ‘I really don’t want to die. I’m only 19. So please help me out.’”

When he arrived, Philippine First Asylum Camp hosted about 3,000 people on approximately 1 square mile of land. The refugees were desperate and crime rates were high.

“There was everything there,” Huynh said. “I witnessed a fight where someone stabbed someone else about 2 or 3 feet from me, for no reason really — it was over the water.”

Huynh was trying to avoid being lured into crime like the other men his age in the camp, he said, so he volunteered to pass out mail to other refugees.

“I didn’t want to waste my time,” Huynh said. “I like to work, and the employees at the camp center could see that.”

After three months, he was promoted to deputy of the planning commission. His job was to keep records of how many people were staying in each housing unit, then assign rooms to new arrivals.

“It kept me very busy, all day every day,” Huynh said. “I was lucky, because then I stayed out of trouble.”

Despite the success he found in the camp, Huynh wanted out. The refugees were plagued with rampant alcoholism, drug addiction and violence, while many young women were forced into sex work as a means to make money.

Six months after Huynh arrived at the camp, representatives from the U.N. came to interview refugees to be considered for admission into the U.S. They prioritized people like Huynh, who were children of South Vietnamese soldiers. However, there was one stipulation — refugees had to provide multiple documents to prove their parents’ position.

“My dad sacrificed his life, so I had the privilege to go to the city center to speak with the delegation,” Huynh said.

Huynh slid his father’s military ID — one of the few things he brought on the boat — across the table at his meeting with a U.N. official. This was the only document he had, because his mother, like many other South Vietnamese, burned documents connecting their family to the American forces to avoid persecution from the new government.

The official, whose name Huynh recalled as Pam, told him that although she wanted to sponsor him, she couldn’t. The ID wasn’t enough documentation to prove that he was the son of a South Vietnamese soldier.

Huynh said he began to worry that he would never be able to leave the camp.

Then, as part of what Huynh called another miracle, there were a series of coup attempts on the Filipino government — one of which resulted in a fierce battle on the streets of Palawan.

The U.S. government became concerned about the welfare of refugees on the island, so it gave a number of those living in PFAC another opportunity to be interviewed for acceptance into the country. Huynh was given a second chance to get out.

Although Huynh was unable to obtain additional documentation, the official he met with told him he had been cleared to leave the camp, and would be transported to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Bataan. His next and final stop would be the U.S.

He left PFAC in 1987. Soon after, the U.N. stopped accepting refugees into the camp and began reducing its size. Some people volunteered to return to Vietnam, while others fought the guards and committed suicide.

Huynh was elated to be relieved of the uncertainty associated with being a refugee.

“You don’t know where you’re going to go, where you’re going to end up or how your life is going to be,” he said. “Are they going to send you back to Vietnam? Are they going to send you to Canada, Australia or somewhere else? You just don’t know. Your destination, your life, depends on someone else. It leaves you feeling powerless and useless.”

While at PRPC, Huynh met missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were teaching English.

He said he was curious about the religion, because he had been on a quest to find the right religion for him since his plea to God earlier on the boat. Huynh’s family was Buddhist, and he previously attended Catholic and Baptist churches.

“I just wanted something that felt comfortable,” he said. “At the Mormon church, I had a sense that they were nice people.”

When Huynh was processed and relocated to the U.S., he was baptized into the church and served a mission in Washington, D.C., from 1990 to 1992. Huynh credited the changes the religion forced him to make and the lessons he learned on his mission for many of his life’s successes.

“I wanted a different path in my life, and my decision brought me to where I am today,” he said.

Ongoing Political Journey

Huynh later graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Asian studies. Upon graduation, he was appointed president of the Vietnamese Community of Utah. He hopes to eventually go to law school, but for now he wants to continue his political career.

“Politics are very complex,” Huynh said. “In China, Vietnam or any communist country, they don’t trust government. They don’t trust police. Then when [people from those countries] come here, they stay away from government and police — but I want to be different. I want to do something to help people around me.”

His determination to forge a path for marginalized communities in politics not only increases the diversity of voices at the table, but also encourages other minorities to be involved in the community.

“It is inspiring to see someone so close to home break down socio-cultural barriers and proving that we are capable of taking on larger roles like politics,” said the Vietnamese-American Student Association at the University of Utah in a prepared statement. “The younger Vietnamese-American can often feel detached from the government due to lack of [Vietnamese] representation, often discouraging them from participating in civic engagement. Tom Huynh’s position as the West Valley City Councilman empowers the younger generation and encourages them to strive toward active political awareness.”

Caren Frost, the director of the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration at the University of Utah, said in a telephone interview that civic engagement is the last step of integration for a refugee. She feels that as Huynh continues to succeed, his political involvement will extend beyond Vietnamese-Americans to inspire all refugees in Utah.

“If a refugee is visible in the community participating in government, then all refugees will feel more comfortable taking the next step and getting involved,” Frost said.

As a city councilman, Huynh focuses on mending the problems of not just refugees, but other groups who are also frequently forgotten. He reaches out to senior citizens in the community to listen to their perspective. Since 2013, Huynh has gone on twice-monthly ride-alongs with police in an effort to solve the city’s crime problem.

“In government, you can change things,” Huynh said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”