Forty years ago, Trieu Nguyen, his pregnant wife Lanh and their seven children were afloat at sea between Vietnam and Thailand. The boat they shared with several other families was falling apart, they had been attacked by Thai pirates who had stolen all their possessions and they hadn’t had enough food or water for four days.
The situation looked almost hopeless.
On June 22, the Nguyens were at Park Place Restaurant celebrating with Ringgold resident Andy Addison, who sponsored them to bring them to the United States shortly after they had landed safely in Thailand in 1979.
Nguyen Van Trieu had served in South Vietnam as an undercover officer and a code decipherer during the Vietnam War. When the war ended with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975, Nguyen was sent to a re-education camp by the Communist conquerors. He spent his two years at the camp planning an escape for his family.
Freedom was not an easy thing for the Nguyen family to achieve.
Four times smugglers stole money Trieu Nguyen had paid to transport them to another country.
With the help of a colleague, he finally succeeded in securing a place on a fishing boat for the whole family. His brother’s family was also on the boat that left Vietnam in the middle of the night.
The families landed in Thailand after their harrowing ordeal and were escorted to a refugee camp where they lived for five months.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the government was looking for people to sponsor Vietnamese families who had fled their country. So many had left with no particular place to go that it had become an international crisis.
When Andy Addison and his late wife Cheryl heard about the need, they felt moved to help. “We were given a choice of three families to sponsor,” says Addison. “I chose the Nguyens because I wanted Lanh’s baby to be born in the United States.”
Karan (Nhung) Nguyen was 4 years old when her family arrived in Georgia. “Andy and Cheryl Addison and First Baptist Church of Fort Oglethorpe welcomed us with a home,” says Karan. “In fact, the entire community pitched in to help supply furniture, clothing and toys.”
Addison says his church owned a house and offered it as a residence for the Nguyen family.
“Marlin Paulson and a lot of other people from the church helped fix up the house and paint it,” says Karan. “Barbara Holland and Odell Culvert provided weekly English lessons for us. Everyone was generous with gifts from quilts to bikes. We all attended church and the kids who were old enough went to school.”
Karan’s father found work in a carpet mill, but the Nguyens didn’t stay in Georgia for long. Trieu’s brother had found a sponsor in Michigan, so the Nguyen family moved north to be with relatives. Eventually, they moved to California.
Addison kept in touch with his sponsored family for a while, but over time they lost contact with one another.
But neither forgot the other.
Eight years ago, Karan decided she wanted to get back in touch with the Addisons. Her father had kept letters from Andy Addison in his Bible, which helped Karan in her search. Addison’s wife Cheryl had passed away and he had remarried. Karan found Cathy, Addison’s second wife, on Facebook and they began to correspond.
Then Karan came up with the idea of a reunion. It involved coordinating schedules to bring together as many family members as possible from California, New York City and Boston to meet in Georgia.
On Saturday, June 22, the dream became a reality: 15 members of the Nguyen family, including Lanh who now goes by Sarah, six of her children, one of their spouses and seven grandchildren; Andy and Cathy Addison; Marlin and Mary Anna Paulson; Barbara Holland and her daughter Lynn; and Addison’s son and daughter and their families met at Park Place Restaurant to reacquaint and reminisce. There were lots of hugs, lots of laughter, lots of talk. Sadly, Trieu had passed away two years earlier and couldn’t share the joy.
“One of Sarah’s grandsons, a teenager, came up and hugged me,” says Addison, “and said ‘I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.’ I told him thank you and I thought that was very sweet of him, but I don’t believe that’s true.” Addison says he is sure someone else would have sponsored the family if he hadn’t.
Addison’s wife Cathy found a collection of photos from the time the Nguyen family spent in Georgia and brought them to the reunion. Most of the family had never seen the pictures and enjoyed pouring over them and reliving their early days in America. Several pictures showed Sarah with her brand new baby, born shortly after arriving in Fort Oglethorpe.
The day after the reunion at Park Place, the Addisons and the Nguyens attended church at First Baptist then returned to the Addison’s house for pizza and more reunion time. On Monday, June 24, they went to Rock City and Karan Nguyen attended a yoga class Cathy Addison teaches.
“I feel a little pride in how they all turned out,” Andy Addison says. “I’m especially happy at how they’re taking such good care of their mother.”
All of the Nguyens who were sponsored by the Addisons became U.S. citizens. Sarah’s eighth child — a girl — was born a citizen at Tri-County Hospital in Fort Oglethorpe. Her mother named her Sheryl, after Cheryl Addison (but with a slight change of spelling).
Sarah now has 13 grandchildren. Her children work in a variety of fields: Sheryl is a compliance specialist at Plains All American Pipeline, Lahn is an art director at Facebook, Karan is a program manager at Kingston Technology, Scott is a concept designer for American Eagle Clothing, Steve is an electrician, Dianne is an administrative assistant at Horiba, Phong owns West Frames, and Christine is an apparel manufacturer.
“The events that brought the Nguyens to America and helped them get settled here,” says Cathy Addison, “transpired before I came into the family, but I’m glad I finally got to meet them. It’s been a huge blessing. They are a loving, kind, sweet, generous family.”