Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

A courageous journey leads to asylum and a long career at Portland Community College

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ben_02For many students at Portland Community College, the Vietnam War seems like the distant past, only revealed in books, media or movies.

But for Ben Le, a long-time employee in the college’s Information Technology Department, the conflict was only too real, something that severed him from his family in Vietnam and ultimately brought him to the United States and a new life.

Le was one the Vietnamese refugees — often referred to as the “boat people” — who fled after the end of the war in 1975 in harrowing journeys across the South China Sea, in small and overcrowded wooden fishing boats.

His father was a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer who worked directly with the U.S. forces. As the North Vietnamese army advanced south, thousands frantically sought to board flights out of the country. Le’s family tried for 10 days, but despite having priority government papers, they were unable to get on a plane. The country fell to the communists, and soon after, Le’s father was arrested and imprisoned at a re-education camp.ben_01

During the next four years, Le made several unsuccessful attempts to escape Vietnam. The risks were high. “I might get shot, or die in the ocean, but I realized I would rather die trying to get to freedom than live without it,” he said.

In 1979, during a visit to his father in the camp, Le quietly told him he would try again. His father replied, “Promise me this: Don’t let them catch you. I don’t care what they do to me, but I couldn’t live if I knew that you were in prison, too. One more thing: If you do make it, come back and visit me someday.”

Le was eventually able to connect with a friend and they had enough money to buy two seats on a boat and get them both out of the country. Under the cover of darkness, Le, his friend and 31 other people furtively packed into a nine-foot skiff with a small outboard motor and raced toward open water, Hong Kong and freedom.

For weeks they motored and drifted, suffering thirst, hunger, the merciless sun, storms and sleep deprivation. They were intercepted and detained twice by Chinese authorities, and there was constant worry about pirates. They were often sure they were lost, which provoked fights among the passengers and captain.

Meanwhile, large ships passed them by despite frantic efforts by the refugees to gain their attention. On rare occasions, ships lowered containers of fuel, food and water to their boat, which became more and more unseaworthy as their journey progressed, forcing the refugees to take turns bailing.

After nearly a month of crossing more than 600 miles of open sea, the rickety skiff finally made it to Hong Kong, and Le started a new life.

Because he had studied English before the end of the war, Le was quickly given a job as an interpreter at the United Nation’s office in the Hong Kong refugee camp. There he met a Vietnamese refugee who became his wife.

After nine months, Le’s application for political asylum in the U.S. was granted, and in 1981 he and his wife arrived in Minnesota, where he had relatives. After one week there, the couple started jobs in electronic assembly. But Le’s goal was to continue his education, for which their Minnesota community had limited options. So four months later the couple relocated to Portland.ben2

Soon after, Le was at a downtown bus stop shelter that had a video monitor filled with rotating numbers. He was so fascinated he watched for several minutes.

“This is great,” he remembered. “I’m waiting for the bus, and America has a TV for us to watch.”

He asked a man at the bus stop what the “TV show” was and the man explained that it was an electronic display of the bus schedule, and that it was done with computers. It was then that Le knew he wanted to study computers.

Le earned his associate degree at PCC, and in 1983 he was hired as a part-time computer operator at the college. The following year he was made a full-time employee, and today is the Information Technology’s server administration manager. Le has been part of the PCC technology team that has renovated and remodeled college infrastructure through the Bond Program. He’s helped on projects like the revamped primary data center, network redesign, refreshing of the computer hardware and software at PCC, and implementation of backup and disaster recovery data centers.

Five years after he arrived, Le also became an American citizen.

“What I found very important is the freedom,” he said. “It’s really open … I couldn’t wait to become a citizen and serve this country. I’m proud that I’ve become a successful American, in American society.

“My goal has always been to serve a public institution in education,” he added. “So when I got a job offer at PCC, it really met my goal and my dream. I’m still working here after 35 years. It’s where I started and where I’ll probably end up.”

Le praised the generosity of his PCC colleagues and, in particular, Infrastructure Services Director Valerie Moreno, “who sees and understands everyone’s value and humanity, and who believes in me.”

Today Le enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter. And every week he and friends from PCC meet up at Pho Hung, a popular Vietnamese restaurant on Southeast Powell Boulevard.

After the end of the Vietnam War, there was no way to communicate with his extended family. But in 1992, after President Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam, Le was finally able to visit. While his mother and siblings were still alive, his father had died in the intervening years. Le kept his promise to visit him, but he had to do it at his gravesite.

Le still misses his extended family, and the vibrant street life and sense of community in Vietnam, but he considers the United States his home.

“When I studied here, a professor in a philosophy class pointed to me in class and asked me to stand up and turn around. Then he said, ‘I want everybody to tell me the difference between you and Ben.’”

All the students responded by saying Le was Asian, or maybe Chinese-Vietnamese.

“You all answered wrong,” the instructor told the students. “The difference between Ben and you is that Ben came to this country a little bit late. Your great, great, great grandfather or grandmother came to this country earlier. That’s the only difference. Ben’s an American. He’s a human being.”

Le said he hadn’t thought of it that way.

“I felt really good,” continued Le. “That professor, he saw that in myself. That’s why they call it the United States of America. So that people from all over the world come here and become one, strong, successful country. In the United States of America, the ‘State’ doesn’t mean a piece of land, it’s the people.”

The author gratefully acknowledges the work of David Pelinka, who wrote a detailed account of Ben Le’s journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong in “A Basketful of Wisdom.” Pelinka retired from PCC as an IT manager. 

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There are 21 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by Quang 2 weeks ago

I am so proud of you Anh Ben.. especially, we are brothers under the same last name. Wish you all the best.

x by Anna Nguyen 1 week ago

Hello Ben,
I am boat people too, I so proud of you and thank you for your service in the IT department at PCC. Because of you and your IT members that gives me an opportunity to take classes online. It helps me to save a lot of time and reduce my stress by less travel to school and be stuck in the traffic.

Thank you


x by Rhianna Johnson 1 week ago

What an inspiring story! Thank you so much for sharing.

x by Jimmy Nguyen 1 week ago

Thanks for sharing your story Uncle Ben!

x by Yvonne Nguyen 1 week ago

So proud of all of your accomplishments Uncle Ben! If it wasn’t for you my parents would not have met in Hong Kong, and I wouldn’t be here today. So thankful for your love and encouragement!

x by Hoang Nguyen 1 week ago

He is such a strong man to get through those difficulties. I’ve never met him at PCC but he looks so confident in the picture. His story is so much touching to encourage young Vietnamese to try harder in the U.S. Thanks for sharing.

x by Guohong Chen 1 week ago

I met you in the IT meeting. Best wishes!

x by Jeremy 1 week ago

A truly inspiring story

x by Phyllis Shen 1 week ago

Amazing Ben Le! What a wonderful person!
I am so happy for you, your wife and your daughter!

x by Shelley Gilmore 1 week ago

What a story! Thank you for sharing it with us. I am glad that you are safe, sound, and happy here in America now.

x by Alycia Kearns 1 week ago

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Ben. I am so amazed by your incredible journey!

x by Joanne Callahan 1 week ago

Great true story very educational and inspiring.Thanks for sharing Ben.

x by Joshua Arnold 1 week ago

I am grateful you’re with us in America. I think seeing your father after he passed was the best for you… It probably would’ve been harder to leave if your father was alive, possibly ill? All things, (such as this story of remarkable experiences) happen for a reason. the first foot you stepped onto that boat was as similar to me as Neil Armstrong walking the moon. one small step for you. One giant leap for mankind. A story you lived to tell. In a free society. This is the real american dream to me. The real american dream is “us united”. When Le “united” these states within his own self. He, allowed me,We….Us re realize the roots of our freedoms.Through Le i was re united with my own American self. (i was born in Portland, OR). in all ways this story moved me so much I had to write you. I hope to meet you someday and shake your hand! This story.. has a ripple of love. -Love is as love does! -Joshua Arnold

x by Doreen Hanna 1 week ago

Thank you so much for sharing your journey and experiences. Very awe inspiring indeed!
We at PCC are very lucky to have you.

x by Veronica Hoyer 1 week ago

Thank you for sharing your wonderful life experience. As an Asian American, it is very inspiring that everything is possible if you put your mind to it.

x by Michael Morrow 1 week ago

It constantly amazes me (though it shouldn’t) that people we see every day–and I must have seen Ben hundreds of times on campus, nodded and said “hi” (before I retired)–have such incredible stories. As one who lived through that war I was especially touched by Ben’s, and his family’s, story. Truly incredible to have survived so much, come so far. it is important that Ben was able to revisit his homeland, and family, though sad that he was unable to say goodbye, face to face, to his father. Wonderful story, thank you so much.

x by Teresa Salinas 1 week ago

Thank you for sharing your life story with us. In appreciation.

x by Nhu To-Haynes 1 week ago

Thanks for sharing your story. The PCC Community is better because of the diversity of our faculty and staff. It important to our students that they can see themselves in the many different people working for the college.

x by Peter Gramlich 1 week ago

Mr. Le very much represents what this nation is about. I too am a foreign-born national, though my journey to the US, Portland and PCC was far less cumbersome than the inspiring Mr. Le’s. I value that many of us have stories like his, and it reminds me again, despite the rhetoric we often hear to the contrary, that the promise of America is not in spite of its diversity, but because of it.

x by Steve Gordon 1 week ago

Thank you for your story, Anh Ben. Sorry that you and your Dad were not able to come to America together, and that he had to go to “re-education camp”. Also so sorry for the war…and the hardships and losses it caused you and the Vietnamese people…. such a beautiful country and people…and glad you are happy here!

x by Catherine R. 1 week ago

Thank you for your incredible story, Mr. Le. Many people born in the U.S. have never had to risk their lives attempting to emigrate from a war-torn country to go to a foreign country just to be free. You have learned a foreign language, have lived and worked in a new culture, and have made a life for yourself–an amazing accomplishment. You appreciate the freedom here that so many in the U.S. take for granted. You are so welcome to be here at PCC and in the U.S. and we are so lucky to have someone like you. Thank you.

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