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Video courtesy of CBC. Nhung Tran-Davies was a Vietnamese refugee privately sponsored by a group of Canadians in 1979. Now she is sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees.

­As a five-year-old resting in her mother’s arms at the bottom of a boat crowded with refugees, Nhung Tran could not have imagined the life she’s living now. A life as a doctor in Canada. A life where she is responsible for bringing two families to safety as a sponsor.

It was the fall of 1978, and Tran’s mother, a widow, joined the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Vietnam. She packed herself and six children into a boat in the midst of the stormy season with the hope they would make it to Malaysia. “She did sacrifice pretty much everything,” says Tran (now Tran-Davies). “Put our lives on the line because she just had hope that we would find something better than what was there in Vietnam.”

As a five-year-old she remembers only glimpses of the two-day journey. “It was really tight, and it was very hot and you know it was hard to breathe down there, the smell of the vomit and my older sister crying because she was sick to her stomach. Bits and pieces like that.” Despite the difficult crossing, she knows they were lucky. Another boat loaded with refugees that left minutes before them got caught in a storm and sank, drowning everyone on board.

The family lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia for eight months before getting word that even though a widow and six children might seem like an economic risk, there was a church in Edmonton that wanted to sponsor them. “When we came over to Canada our family was a mother and six kids…what I understood is that not a lot of the other nations wanted our family because they thought that our family would be a burden to their community, to their economy,” Tran-Davies says. 

The Tran family a few months after arriving in Canada, with toys donated by their sponsors.Photo courtesy of Nhung Tran-Davies.

Her mother was anxious when the plane hit the tarmac in Edmonton, and feared getting off. Though she was relieved to be in a safer place, Tran-Davies says, she didn’t know how a seamstress with little education could make it in a new country with six children. She didn’t know there was a group of sponsors waiting to help them.

But then they walked off the plane and saw the faces of the sponsors there to greet them. As the youngest, Tran-Davies doesn’t remember much, but does recall receiving a doll from one of the sponsors that she still has today. “We were just so happy, we knew that we were in good hands. And we had no idea how good we were going to have it just because these sponsors were so wonderful to us.” 

Nhung Tran-Davies received a doll from her sponsors when she arrived at the airport in 1979. The moment was captured for the local newspaper, and she still has the doll today.Photo courtesy of Nhung Tran-Davies.

Nearly 40 years later, Tran-Davies is bringing that same peace to two families fleeing violence in Syria. Over the last few years she heard about the conflict in Syria and wondered how to help. Then last summer it dawned on her that she could become a sponsor. She wanted to bring over two families, so she asked two separate groups of friends for help. One a group of former refugees and immigrants from Vietnam, the other a group of children of the families that sponsored her all those years ago.

Nhung Tran-Davies (right) with some of the friends helping with sponsorship today.Photo/Peter Markowski.

They were matched with two Syrian families through MCC Alberta’s refugee sponsorship program. Inspired by the church that sponsored her, Tran-Davies specifically asked for families that would be harder to settle, for groups larger than four. In one of those families, a mother with five children coming with her mother and brother, Tran-Davies saw especially strong parallels to her own family. She even brought a doll to the airport for the youngest girl, just as she received on her first day in the country. Offering it up as a symbol of the kindness of Canadians.

“It does seem funny how life works out,” she says. “Forty years later it’s sort of like a déjà vu, we’re in the same situation but this time I am the sponsor.”

In those nearly forty years, Tran-Davies went to medical school, became a doctor and now practices with her husband in rural Alberta. Her siblings have opened restaurants and worked as a car mechanic and a draftsperson. Working hard was one way to honour the work of the sponsors who brought them here, Tran-Davies says. “It’s left a very permanent mark in our hearts and we try to live to honour their kindness.” Becoming a sponsor herself was one more way to honour that work.

Now that both families Tran-Davies is working with have arrived, the sponsors are getting to know them and helping with things like registering for health care and language classes, going to doctor’s visits and school. Tran-Davies believes that with time and resources these families will succeed.  “I truly believe that their kids will help make Canada more beautiful,” she says. “In 40 years, I look forward to seeing the kids’ accomplishments and see what they will do for Canada.” 

Nhung Tran-Davies with Basemah Albittar, from one of the newly arrived families, and interpreter Dalia Abddellatif.Photo courtesy of Nhung Tran-Davies.

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