Old Greenwich fundraiser to benefit refugees draws parallels between Syria and Vietnam boat people

March 7, 2017 GMT

GREENWICH — To organizers of the Women of Vision’s fundraising luncheon Monday, the parallels between Vinh Chung’s escape from Vietnam in 1979 and the current experience of Syrian refugees is unconscionable.

“I wish we could say that Vinh’s story is something we only see in old videos or read about in history books,” David Mitchell, World Vision’s national director, said. “We live in a world where one in every 113 people on Earth woke up today having been driven from their homes by persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.”

Chung was the keynote speaker at Women of Vision Fairfield County’s event, sharing the story of his escape and life as a refugee before being settled in the U.S. where he and his family eventually thrived.

It was a story of disaster, fear, disappointment, hunger, thirst and despair that kept an audience of nearly 200 at the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich dead silent in respect for his experiences.


Chung’s family had been wealthy until Saigon fell in 1975 and Communists seized power and the Chung family factory and machinery at gunpoint, stole their money and jewelry and forced them from their home.

The family found a temporary haven in a small shack on a rural farm with no electricity or running water. It was here that Chung was born. In 1979, the family sold what they could to chance an escape by sea in hopes of finding a refugee camp.

“Even though we will never know the true numbers, the estimate is that roughly 50 percent of all Vietnamese refugees who fled in this manner died,” Chung said. “But staying behind was not a good option either. My parents had eight children and they knew that there was no future. There were no educational opportunities for us and they knew every day was a daily struggle just to have enough to eat.”

Along with 16 other families, totaling 290 people, they cast off into the South China Sea. Thai pirates attacked, stealing what little people had. They arrived in Malaysia where they were beaten and starved by Malaysian troops before being forced back in the water.

“We were at sea with no hope in sight,” Chung recalled, without food and water and basic human dignity. “Some of the mothers on the boat even began to contemplate the unthinkable, that perhaps it was better and more merciful to drown the children than have them suffer. This is what it’s like to be refugees.”

They were saved by a boat chartered by World Vision, a worldwide Christian humanitarian organization which was on a relief mission to help refugees. Chung said the entire world had turned its back — except for World Vision.

Chung and his family were eventually resettled in Arkansas. Chung’s father took a job doing manual labor in a factory that made air conditioners. The family grew to 11 children.


“Most of my memories of this were vague because I was so young, but my parents still remember everything as though it was yesterday,” Chung said. “To this day, they’re so traumatized by what they experienced.”

His parents, he said, worked hard and made sacrifices to send all the children to college. Chung himself graduated from Harvard and is a physician living in Colorado specializing in skin cancer treatments. His new life in America, he said, brought him enormous religious faith and an urgency to give back.

Net proceeds from the luncheon support Women of Vision’s projects, which have a special focus on refugees in 2017. Women of Vision is a volunteer ministry involved with World Vision.

Chung’s story was a way to put a face on what to many people is a fleeting news story or occasional photo on the web, organizers said.

“The scale and scope of the Syrian refugee crisis is truly overwhelming,” Gigi Jorissen, chairman of the Women of Vision Fairfield County’s board, said. “Syria’s civil war has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Just think about that. There are 11 million Syrian people, which is a little more than half the population, on the run, including some 4.8 million who have been forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. The numbers may even be larger than that.”

Inside Syria, Jorissen said, there are another 6.3 million who have been displaced and an overall 13.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Half of those are children, a visibly emotional Jorissen said.

The global refugee crisis goes beyond Syria. Jorissen said there were more than 65 million people currently displaced from Iraq, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and more countries in what she termed the largest displacement of people since the end of the World War II. More than 20 million children are living in refugee camps, tent cities and other temporary shelters, she said.

“We may feel powerless to stop this, but what we can do is open up our hearts and our minds to the needs of the refugees, raise awareness in our community about their plight and support World Vision in the work they’re doing in refugee camps,” Jorissen said.