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