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'I still remember'

March 30, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

When Quynh Nguyen and his wife, Long, were last in Washington County they had recently escaped from Vietnam and were sponsored by a Hagerstown church whose members provided them with housing, clothes, a used car and other help.

When they left the area about 18 months later, in 1981, to join relatives in Portland, Ore., they promised they would return one day to visit.

This week they made good on that promise, returning to Hagerstown and thanking members of St. Ann's Catholic Church of Hagerstown for their help.

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Quynh Nguyen, 58, spoke during the masses at the church on Sunday. His family and members of the congregation cried as he talked about their shared past, he said.

"I said, 'Thanks a lot. After 20 years I still remember,'" he said Monday. "Wherever we live we never forgot the people from St. Ann's church."

"Everyone still loves us like they did the first day we came here. I am so happy," Long Nguyen, 53, said.

The couple spent a week at the house of church member Pat Firey, who was involved in the decision to sponsor them.

"It has been a wonderful reunion," Firey said.

The couple is to fly home today.

Quynh Nguyen said he was captured in 1975 and spent about four years in labor camps where conditions were terrible and there was little food.

In 1979, the couple decided to try to escape Vietnam by boat but delayed the escape until after his wife gave birth to their second child, Quynh Nguyen said. Five days after she gave birth, the couple left on a 50-mile walk to the coast and their eventual escape, he said.

Meanwhile, members of St. Ann's decided to sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family.

The Nguyens made their way to Thailand where they lived in a refugee camp for six months until they received word that they had a sponsor - St. Ann's Catholic Church.

When they arrived at National Airport in Washington on April 30, 1980, they were malnourished and thin.

Quynh, who said he now weighs about 150 pounds, weighed about 110 pounds then, Pat Firey recalled. The family's only possessions were the clothes they were wearing and a few other clothing articles packed into an all-purpose cooking pot.

The church set up committees, with one group making sure health concerns were addressed while another helped family members learn English, Firey said.

"People just opened up their hearts," Firey said.

Church members Madeline and Philip Toomey took the family into their home, where they stayed for about two months.

The family later got an apartment of their own, where they stayed for about 1 1/2 years before taking a Greyhound bus to Oregon.

Both Toomeys have since died. This weekend the Nguyens visited their graves and left flowers.

The Firey family and the Nguyen family have stayed in touch as the immigrants got better jobs and their children, now grown, attend universities, Pat Firey said.

"They are a witness to how great our country is," she said.

Nguyen said he has a message to the community: Thank you to everyone, especially the members of St. Ann's. He said if anyone ever travels to Oregon, they will be welcomed into his house.

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