Before Van Tran was old enough to have even her first childhood memories — when she was 5 or 6 months old — she contracted polio. She survived, but without the use of her right leg and with little use of her left leg. This was in Vietnam 52 years ago, so there was no medical treatment. There were no corrective surgeries, no physical therapy. She couldn’t walk very much. And that was that.
In those days, and even now in Vietnam, this disability would pretty much have defined her life.
She says: “Society doesn’t consider you as a whole person. You never have a chance for an education, never a chance for a job, never a chance for a family of your own — never a chance for anything. You just don’t do anything. Your family takes care of you.”
That was just not Van, even as a little girl. She watched as her brothers and sisters went off to school every day.
“And I’m just home. Home with my mom.”
The nuns in the Catholic convent next door taught her to read and write and do some math, and when she was 9 years old, she thought through the logistics of a school day.
“I say, I can do this.”
And that, in a phrase, is the story of Van’s life.
• • •
Van (whose name is pronounced Von) started school in second grade, thanks to the nuns. Her sisters helped. She finished third grade and was ready for fourth.
In 1974, when she was 10, Van was eligible for medical treatment from a German group helping Vietnamese children who had disabilities or war injuries. Van went to Germany, where she lived at Friedensdorf, or Peace Village, for eight months, she and more than 100 others. Their ages ranged from young adults in their 20s to children as young as 1 or 2 years old — their disabilities from polio to burns to spinal cord and war injuries.
Van had surgery, got braces, learned to walk. And that wasn’t even the most important part.
“At the Peace Village, we never look at each other as having disability or being disabled. …
“I just loved that people see you as who you are. And yes, you do have dreams. You do have hopes. And many people with disabilities can do things. I see the older young adults with disabilities working, supporting themselves, doing all these things that able bodies do.
“And I say: ‘That’s what I want.’”
• • •
Full of ideas of self-sufficiency and hope for her future, Van returned to her home in South Vietnam. But history intervened; her return was just two months before the war ended.
“Our town is far enough (away), but we can always hear fighting. You can hear it in the distance. … I still remember those scenes — the people begging, the people hungry, people are dying; you see so many suffering people on the streets … people moving and migrating into our town, telling stories. …
“I was young then but old enough to understand war. … And then one day it actually happens and you are in the midst of it, you are a part of it, you witness that, you lived through that. You become part of history and it becomes a part of who you are.”
Van’s family fled to a tiny island offshore one morning; by noon, their town was overtaken by North Vietnamese. From their island, they watched the city burn. Van’s father was a civilian in the provincial government, so it was not safe for any of them to return.
Her father paid a boat captain to take the family to open seas where they hitchhiked a ride on a commercial ship going to Saigon. It was a grueling two-day ordeal, and to this day, Van dislikes boats. But her five brothers were old enough to be drafted, so her father was desperate.
“Luckily, when we live in (my hometown) … when people come and need help in our town, my mom and dad were strongly believed in helping. They shared what they had. And so when we got to Saigon … these people, we meet up with them again. They just said, ‘You help my family trying to survive at the time, so now we’re going to help you.’ We were lucky that way.”
Their luck held; with no money and a piece of paper vouching for them, the family was able to get to the airport. They were airlifted four or five days before the fall of Saigon and landed in Arkansas, where they stayed for 72 days at Fort Chaffee. There, they learned English, how to fill out job applications, filed for green cards. In those days, more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees came to the United States.
Van, however, was able to be evacuated back to Germany with the staff and some children from the Peace Village. She was there for six months, which reinforced her growing sense of independence (and gave her some fluency in German). But when she joined her family in Tulsa, where they had been sponsored, her transition was a tangle of old and new expectations and the tremendous effort to simply survive in America.
“You always have this sense of lost. … ”
Her first year in school, Van just learned English. The second time through seventh grade, she was able to study the subjects and she went from there. That was school. Social life was a different story.
“My sisters and brothers, they all have friends. But because I have a disability, I never really have friends. People don’t see me. I’m always someone else’s sister. Activities-wise, everybody gets invited, but not me. I’m always home unless I do things with the family. They would go to movies and shopping and stuff and I was never asked to go with them. …
“I don’t resent it, it just is what it is. Looking back, it’s painful when you think about it, but at the time everybody was trying to assimilate and adjust.”
When Van was 15, she had had major surgery on her legs. That didn’t help in her effort to fit in, but it did give her a sense of direction.
“I received a lot of therapy and that’s when I learn what I want to do: I want to be a therapist. … I know exactly what I want.”
For her senior year, Van moved to California to live with a brother and his wife to get residency — her strategy for affording junior college, which, at that time, was free for California residents. She followed a science track.
“After I graduated, (my parents) say, ‘OK, now it’s time for you to come home. You don’t need to study any more.’ … I told them, ‘Mmmm, that was not in my plan.’”
Her parents were very supportive of her, she is quick to point out, but they were also protective and worried about her. Van lived with sisters during occupational therapy school, and it wasn’t until she got her first job — in Boise — that she lived alone. And she’s never looked back.
“Life is never fair, but yet it is what it is. You have choices. You either take it and run with it, or you stay put, which means you don’t go anywhere. I choose not to stay put.”
In Boise — single, new job, new city, new life — she took voice lessons and guitar lessons to fill her time. She discovered two outdoor groups for people with disabilities and signed up.
“(Even) if you don’t have a disability, some people don’t get to do some of the things that I have done. … I move up here and I ski … and I race in local fun events and do all kinds of things. … Some of my brothers and sisters have never been on a ski hill — and here I have done all of that.”
It was on an Alternative Mobility Adventure Seekers (AMAS) outing that Van met her future husband, John Schiff. He was doing a documentary about AMAS and she was part of a group that flew into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness with volunteer pilots. They were married two years later; they just celebrated their 22nd anniversary.
“It’s like anybody’s dream. … I want to have a family … but I know if I lived in Vietnam or was still there, that would never happen. I know that if I … lived with my parents, that probably wouldn’t happen either.
“But being on my own, and taking the risk and taking all the opportunities that come up that I am able to do, I met wonderful people. I make good friends. (I fall in love; I get married.) It was a dream come true for me.”
Today, Van is an occupational therapist with St. Luke’s Orthopedics Hand and Wrist Clinic, specializing in hand therapy. Because of some post-polio health issues, she now uses a power wheelchair and works four days a week. And she is happy.
“You will be challenged, but if you live and do what is right, you will be blessed and you will overcome the challenges. I do have a really strong faith in believing that.”
Not that this faith makes life easy by a long shot.
“I have strong faith, but I still have a disability. Having faith doesn’t mean things don’t happen. It still happens, but faith helps answer how do you survive? How do you overcome? …
“My parents gave up everything they work for because they don’t want us to live under the communist regime and we don’t have the opportunity there. We have strong faith — but we still have to leave everything and lose everything.
“We come here — but guess what? We were blessed with opportunities, we have good health, we have good family base, we stay together. …
“For me, I measure success in the life and values that I have — blessed with love of family and friends, good health, a wonderful career; the ability to give back and pay forward at this time in my life. And most of all, to find peace within myself …
“That’s worth more than anything.”
• • •
In 2010, Van’s sister, Marie Tran, who lives in Seattle, volunteered at an orphanage in central Vietnam next to the border of Cambodia. Every day, she’d feed the babies, teach kids English, help out. She and Van talked via computer or Skype twice a day.
“She said, ‘I went into the storage and there was nothing left.’ They had run out of food for the kids. And she ask the sisters, ‘What do you do?’ and the sisters say, ‘Pray.’”
Marie, for her part, went shopping. Van, in Boise, felt moved to do something as well, so she and a group of friends organized a fundraiser. Marie came to Boise and spoke and showed slides and they raised $3,000. Even afterwards, money still trickled in.
“I kept saying, if we just stop here, what happens when these few thousand dollars run out?”
The result was an Idaho-based nonprofit called Children of Vinh Son Orphanage Inc., that raises, between grants and donations, about $25,000 each year for six orphanages that serve more than 700 ethnic minority children.
“The poorest of the poor.”
The nonprofit fills the pantries twice a year with food staples, funds a dental program, provides milk and $5,000 a year for school supplies. For the Lunar New Year in 2015, each child got a mosquito net, a pillow, towel, blanket and a straw mat.
“Just like anybody else, we all have dreams, we have goals. It’s hard to see — even here in the States I see people with broken dreams, not able to make it. It breaks my heart. I just want to go out and help them, do what I can to give them support.
“It’s the same with these kids. You always keep praying that opportunities come up for them.”
Van supports local Boise charities as well, but these children have a special place in her heart.
“I always want to give back. My sisters and I always say we are very, very fortunate and blessed — we were taken care of when we first came here to the country. The people, the United States, welcomed us with open arms and give us the opportunity, the love and support to be where we are today.
“And we always want to be giving back in some way. Doesn’t matter which group or who, but we always wanted to give back, somehow.”
About once a year, Marie returns to the orphanages — Van and her husband hope to go someday — and sends back photos of smiling kids.
“I don’t know (the kids) at all, I have never met them. But through the pictures … the kids are very happy. I say if I can, in some way, some how, give them that smile — that’s just worth everything.”
Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email email@example.com.
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The Idaho nonprofit hosts a fundraiser once a year in the fall. Stay tuned for next year.