In Vietnam, they had been doctors or business people with well-established careers, families and lives. In the United States, they were refugees who found freedom — but lost much of their previous professional and personal selves.
Douglas Smith, a now retired psychologist who has lived in Palo Alto for 40 years, helped many Bay Area Vietnamese refugees regain what they lost. On Saturday, Aug. 17, a group of those refugees and their families are gathering to celebrate Smith at his 85th birthday party.
From the late 1980s until the 1990s, Smith volunteered at the nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) in San Jose, teaching groups of refugees about citizenship tests, tutoring them in English and prepping many for medical-residency interviews and board exams.
"Some of the people ... they become hopeless," said Dr. Lynn Giang, a psychiatrist who fled Vietnam in 1984, nine years after the fall of Saigon. "They cannot do anything. He (Smith) is the one always there to save them."
Giang and Smith met at AACI in 1994, after a group of immigrant physicians told her to contact him for help with interviewing skills. She became a member of a close-knit group that met once a week with Smith to discuss how to return to their previous professions and to rehearse for residency interviews.
Most group members faced hurdles proving the equivalency of their talent in a new country with a different system.
Giang remembers these meetings, during which Smith would videotape their interview rehearsals so they could watch later and improve. Smith previously worked as a psychologist at the Palo Alto VA for a decade, during which he said he interviewed hundreds of psychology interns. He used that experience to instruct the refugees on how to appeal to an interviewer.
"The strategy was to find a hook, as I called it, to attract people," Smith said. He recalled a woman he worked with who had been imprisoned for three months in Vietnam for attempting to escape the country.
"And I said to her, that's the perfect hook. That's something that people are going to remember. So you have to get that information out to the interviewing committee. ... And she did and she got her residency."
"The most important thing that he gave us (was) a lot of hope," Giang said of these meetings. "He make us believe (in) ourselves. I think that all of us lost our confidence."
Jorge Wong, a psychologist and director of clinical and regulatory affairs at AACI, said that for Vietnamese refugees, coming to the United States was a huge investment.
"They were usually better off back home. They spoke the language; they were mostly professionals, like the first wave of refugees from other countries."
In the late 1970s and 1980s, there were three major emigration waves from Vietnam, Wong explained. The first was made up of more affluent Vietnamese who left as soon as Saigon fell in 1975, many able to leave on ships or military planes with the assistance of the U.S. government. The second and third waves — made up of people with fewer resources — faced more challenges. They often fled on boats to neighboring South Asian countries such as Thailand or the Philippines, risking the very real possibilities of rape, torture and piracy.
Upon refugees' arrival in the United States, finding the basics to survive — food, shelter, clothing and jobs — without knowing English proved challenging. Wong said many experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from the war and the subsequent transition to the United States. Many struggled with assimilation, retaining their culture, accessing health care, and finding schools for their children and well-paying jobs for themselves.
Giang, now a psychologist at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, escaped Vietnam on a 10-meter boat with 50 other people. From Malaysia she flew to a refugee camp in the Philippines, which she referred to as "orientation" for her impending arrival to the United States.
"In refugee camp I had to learn as fast as I can English," she said, her grammar still imperfect today. She had learned foreign languages in high school, but primarily French rather than English. "People speak too fast; totally different accent. Kind of a shock."
When she arrived in California, she said she found out from other refugees that returning to the medical field was "almost impossible."
She decided to get a degree in engineering — a lucrative profession that involves programming languages that English and non-English speakers alike can understand. Living in San Jose at the time, she attended San Jose State University.
After working in engineering for a few years, Giang's English improved and she felt confident enough to return to medicine, she said. Continuing to work full-time, she used nights to study for two board exams — the first, basic science and the second, clinical — which she passed. She then had to apply for residency, a process notoriously difficult in California, especially for Vietnamese refugees who aren't familiar with the American system and thus cannot contact their government or universities to procure records or verify their ability to practice medicine. Many Vietnamese immigrants who came to California would leave the state to do their residency elsewhere and return afterward, Giang said.
Dr. Doan Nguyen, a fellow member of Smith's AACI group, said that he hoped to procure a residency at the University of California San Francisco but was perceived as unqualified because of his limited English.
"People see me like I'm just, I shouldn't be getting into the program," said Nguyen, who had been a psychiatrist in Vietnam.
But he said that Smith — who made a rule for the group that whenever he was around, they were only allowed to speak English — was always positive.
"He doesn't bring anything that makes us feel negative."
Nguyen first arrived in the United States in May 1981 and found work for a few years as a cabinetmaker in New Orleans. He moved to California to study after his friends encouraged him to return to medicine. In the meantime, he took a job as a researcher at the AACI, where he met Smith.
"We became friends," Nguyen said. "He's so fun to be around."
"Basically we talk with him and (were) learning about American culture ... how to understand what is the need or interest of Americans in general. We learn most(ly) language and culture, especially culture in medicine and psychiatry."
Smith also often counseled the group on professional and personal issues. Giang said she had heard another group member had been considering committing suicide before meeting and being helped by Smith.
Nguyen, now a psychiatrist at the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, Calif., said Smith spent day and night, some nights past midnight, working to help him and other refugees. He remembers Smith encouraging a woman to get a degree in social work and along the way treating her like his own daughter.
Smith said he did the same with Giang when she was deciding if she should give up engineering to pursue medicine.
"We had some talks about this," Smith remembered. "What I tell my own daughter when she was looking at alternative careers. How do you want to spend your time? And what does your heart tell you? You're going to be working for a long time, and you might as well be doing something that you adore and makes you happy."
Smith also became a part of Giang's family, forming a relationship with her father — despite the fact that neither spoke the same language — and helping her two daughters with their college application essays. Both of Giang's daughters were born in the United States and went to Gunn High School in Palo Alto. She said Smith was like a grandfather to them.
"Without thinking about compensation or anything whenever we need, (he was) always there to help," Giang said. "And not only me. Before me and after me, he did the same thing. He has a very big heart."
Smith continues his work today by helping Vietnamese high school students write their college application essays and prepare for interviews.
Giang characterized Smith as a man so humble that she's surprised he agreed to an interview for this article.
"(He) isn't looking to be known," Nguyen said, "but his spirit has been my inspiration."