Their port has its own stormy seas

Like many retirees who see Florida as a land of promise, My Hao Tran was drawn here by the appeal of warm weather, sun, and water.

"I like to go to the beach, be healthy," she says simply.

Mrs. Tran's serene manner gives no hint of the 30-year odyssey that led her from war-torn Vietnam to this idyllic spot. Like others in her homeland who fled in rickety boats under an intense media spotlight after the 1975 fall of Saigon, she escaped with nothing. Now retired after years of low-paying work, she lives invisibly, part of the ranks of older Vietnamese refugees around the United States who long ago faded from public attention. Although some have done well, many like Tran struggle to stretch meager incomes.

Call it the graying of the boat people. "When they first arrived, they were in middle age," says Bun Hap Prak, executive director of the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center here. "Now they're reaching seniority."

In 1975, the largest number of Vietnamese refugees - 125,000 - arrived in the United States. Some boat people came directly to Florida. Other refugees, former political prisoners, arrived in the mid-1990s, making their homes in a variety of states. Now Mr. Prak sees a third migration as older Vietnamese move to the Sun Belt from states with harsher climates.

Today, nearly 25,000 Asians live in the St. Petersburg area, a number that has doubled in a decade. Of those, about 2,000 Vietnamese are over the age of 65. Another 700 Vietnamese over 65 live in the Tampa area. Add older Laotian refugees and Cambodians who survived "the killing fields," and the numbers increase.

Older Vietnameseoften speak little or no English, and many are undereducated. The majority arrived in the US after enduring years of oppression, torture, and imprisonment. Traumatized by the war and malnourished in refugee camps, they faced special challenges.

Much-needed support

Now their needs are beginning to attract attention. Last October, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington sponsored the first conference on aging among Southeast Asian-Americans. Although it was held in Sacramento, Calif., and focused on residents of California, the issues transcend state lines. These include housing, transportation, healthcare, and language proficiency.

Groups like Prak's, scattered around the country, offer support and a sense of community.

Shortly before noon on a cloudy Sunday, 75 Vietnamese seniors gather at the All-Asian Center a few miles from downtown St. Petersburg for an afternoon of food, conversation, and dancing. Men in suits and ties and women in silk dresses have come to celebrate the Lunar New Year and attend the annual meeting of the Association of Senior Citizens of Vietnamese Origin, a 400-member group in Tampa Bay. Almost all are refugees, enjoying a chance to socialize.

Inside the stucco building, a hand-painted map of Vietnam decorates one wall. Conversations fill the room, and the aroma of Vietnamese dishes drifts from the kitchen. Tables laden with food offer a welcome feast, especially for those on stringent budgets.

Some come from prosperous backgrounds. One former doctor was educated in France. Another guest, once the director of a cement factory in Vietnam, now works as a guard in a parking lot. The gathering also includes a descendant of the imperial family of Vietnam, a former colonel in the Vietnamese Army, and others who worked as lawyers, architects, and physicians.

Despite the prosperity they enjoyed in their homeland, they were not able to find similar positions in the US."They are poor people here," says Daniel Luu, president of the association.

Two physicians, Tu Nguyen and her husband, Nhu Nguyen, spent 18 years apart before he was released from Vietnamese prisons.

In 1977, Mrs. Nguyen arranged for their young daughter to flee Vietnam on a boat, accompanied by a family friend. She made her way to Israel and then to New York, where she lived with Mrs. Nguyen's sister. Their second daughter escaped by plane two years later.

Not until 1981 was Mrs. Nguyen reunited with them in New York. She worked for 10 years as a physician's assistant. Her husband finally joined the family in Florida in 1993, but was never able to work here.

Today the couple live frugally in a small condo in Largo, Fla. In retirement, both write for Vietnamese magazines. They take one trip a year to visit relatives. Last week they traveled to Texas for a nephew's wedding.

Another couple, who ask to be identified only as Mr. and Mrs. Chau, explain that he had been a judge in Vietnam. Here in Florida, both worked in minimum-wage jobs for six years, until their employer considered them too old. Four of their six adult children live with them and help with expenses.

That kind of intergenerational support follows the pattern in their own country. "In Vietnam, parents live with you in their old age," Mr. Luu says. "It's your duty to feed and take care of them."

Here, some Vietnamese parents find that their Americanized children do not have the same respect, or lack the time and resources to care for them.

Some, like Tran, are childless. "I have nobody here," she says quietly.

Long, lonely struggle

In 1975, when she was in her early 40s, Tran escaped from Vietnam on a small fishing boat. A freighter took her to the Philippines, and she later traveled to Guam. She spent more than a decade in Pennsylvania and another 10 years in California before moving to St. Petersburg in 2002.

Formerly a midwife in Vietnam, she worked in the US for 11 years in a variety of jobs, including in a shoe factory and a meatpacking plant. For two years she worked in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, earning $3 an hour. "They cheat me," she says.

Now Tran lives in a federally subsidized two-room apartment. Despite its simplicity, she says, "I like it there."

Her meager budget imposes constant limits. She receives $505 a month in Social Security, $77 in Supplemental Social Security), and $28 in food stamps. That totals $610 a month, or $7,320 a year.

"How you going to live on it?" she asks. "It's hard. When I go to supermarket, everything is too expensive. I eat very simply - something cheap, like vegetables. Sometimes fish." Her embroidered blouse cost $4, her purse $2. "I buy only secondhand, never new."

Tran fills her days by going to church in the morning, walking the beach, exercising, and talking with Vietnamese friends.

She learned English by writing unfamiliar words on her arm, then looking them up in a dictionary. Her language proficiency gives her an advantage over refugees who must depend on interpreters. About 80 percent do not speak English well enough to go to a doctor or lawyer, Luu notes.

Now many older Southeast Asians are struggling to learn English to pass the citizenship test. They must become citizens to receive Social Security benefits. Many also cannot afford decent housing. "Sometimes five elderly [people] will cram into one studio apartment," Prak says. "They have to create their own invisible partition and pretend they have privacy."

A few Vietnamese seniors have no home at all. "They just roam around," says Prak. "Their family abandoned them, or they left their family in another state."

It is not the life many expected. Because of the American alliance with South Vietnam during the war, Prak says, "They thought the government here would take care of them. They thought they would have a pension and housing."

As one way to make life more comfortable for older refugees, Prak wants to establish an Asian senior center, where seniors can socialize, play cards and Ping-Pong, and enjoy nourishing meals. Elderly Asians typically do not eat Western food.

But finding money for such a project is difficult.

"Oftentimes programs for Asians are underfunded," Prak says. "Nobody advocates for them." Americans, he notes, assume that Asian families will take care of their elders.

Grateful for freedom

Whatever their hardships, many of these boat people and refugees express appreciation for their adopted home. Nham Thach spent 13 years in prison in Vietnam and four years in refugee camps in Thailand before arriving in the US in 1995. Wounded eight times in the war, he rolls up one sleeve to reveal an injured arm, and slips off a shoe to point to an injured foot. He was widowed five years ago, and his adult children remain in Vietnam.

"I like freedom - freedom to do whatever we want to do," Mr. Thach says.

Mrs. Chau echoes that sentiment: "We appreciate the American people and the government. We found freedom here."

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