In this series of four blog posts celebrating Public Service Recognition Week, we honor the dedication of USCIS employees who fulfill the USCIS mission of securing America's promise as a nation of immigrants.
By Ben Rubenstein
When Sanh M. was 8 years old, she loosened her fixed grip on her father's hand as he sent her towards a boat that would take her from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Thailand. She says her father told her, "Go…go with your sisters. Your mother, brothers and I will be right behind you."
Sanh (left) and her sisters while living in a Thailand refugee camp from 1986-1988.
Sanh thought they would reunite soon, that the others would be delayed mere days. Until then, Sanh and her three older sisters darted through the forest and marshes, sneaked by soldiers guarding the beach, and found the boat. They reached the refugee camp and throughout their two years there Sanh asked her sisters, "Where’s mom and dad?" There was no way to get in touch. They didn't know what happened to their parents and younger brothers. Their parents and brothers didn't know what happened to them.
Sanh says her parents had sent them away for better education and futures. When they left, before Vietnam's economic reforms, the country was one of the poorest in the world
. Per capita income was around $100 with the majority living in extreme poverty. Sanh grew up sleeping in the same bed as all three of her sisters. Even still she has pleasant memories of the friendly, hard-working Vietnamese people, and of fresh fish.
Sanh (left) and her father at her graduation from Virginia Tech in 2001.
While recalling the suffering at the refugee camp in Thailand, Sanh paused at times to cry. "We went to bed hungry. They had food but it wasn't enough to provide for everyone. There were a lot of people there. It was sad. However, knowing there were other kids in the same situation, I was ok. Plus my sisters were around."
Two years later, in 1988, Sanh and her sisters were formally accepted into the United States through Connections, a Roman Catholic-based organization in Richmond, Virginia, and the four girls were placed in foster care. The sisters finally got in touch with their family back in Vietnam.
Sanh (center) and her entire family reunite to celebrate her wedding in 2006.
The sisters separated to different families around Roanoke, Virginia, though Sanh remained with her sister nearest her in age, Sinh. Sanh found it comforting to live with Sinh and see her other sisters when all the foster parents arranged for them to get together.
In Asia, Sanh says everyone had brown eyes and black hair. "I came here and, wow – the environment, food, people of all different nationalities – I felt like I fit in. It was amazing."
In 1999, about 12 years after letting go of her father's hand, the sisters and their parents reunited once Sanh's oldest sister became a U.S. citizen and could sponsor them. Mullaney became a citizen in 2000. Her brothers and youngest sister came over in 2005 when Sanh's parents were able to sponsor them.
Now, Sanh's whole family is here, along a 250-mile stretch from Roanoke to Dunkirk, Maryland, where Sanh lives. She says reuniting was "one of those happy moments in life. We went through so much for so long."
Sanh sees her parents every couple months. She even keeps in touch with her foster parents in Blacksburg, Virginia, where she studied accounting at Virginia Tech. She and Sinh see each other often since they live about 33 miles apart. They also each have two daughters. Sanh's daughters Caitlin, 6, and Brianna, 5, like to sing, dance and swim.
Sanh last returned to Vietnam in 2001, before she married and had her daughters. She found it different than how she remembered it, with booming tourism and many Vietnamese people living a decent lifestyle.
First an accountant at KPMG after college, Sanh became a contractor with USCIS in 2003 and converted to a federal employee in 2011. She is a budget analyst with the Office of Information Technology. She says working here is "something I always wanted to do. Just my background and who I am, I want to help make a difference."
Sanh (right), her husband, and her children visit National Harbor.
If Sanh could change her past, would she have stayed in Vietnam and remained with her family? No. "I am truly blessed to be here," she says.