Verdugo Views: A history with Vietnamese refugees

In the fall of 1975, several refugees from war-torn Vietnam arrived in Glendale. They had been attending orientation classes at Camp Pendleton and were still there when several local church members offered them temporary homes.

None spoke English when they arrived here. In a recent letter, Nena Kelty, one of a group that stepped forward to assist them, wrote, “I don't think many of your readers know of Glendale's part in welcoming and assisting the Vietnamese refugees. The kindness and generosity its residents exhibited in helping these unfortunate people who fled their homeland in terror went largely unrecognized.”

She learned of the situation when someone from Gospel Lighthouse Publications, at 110 East Broadway, contacted her group, California Literacy, requesting a tutor-training workshop. Some of their employees — along with some United Community Church members — were eager to help. The church sponsored about 10 families, and the Altrusa Club also sponsored a family, Kelty recalled.

She was part of a team, along with Jane Scanland and Mary Anne Nelson, that led the workshop. Later, inspired by the opportunity to help, Kelty joined the newly trained tutors in their outreach to the refugees.

“The big day arrived when all the tutors and I met at the church for our first lesson. The Vietnamese families poured in with their little children.” They had no money to pay babysitters, so Abby Lu Fuller, who was in charge of the program, arranged child care.

The adults were somewhat subdued, she recalled. “These were people who had escaped the shores of Vietnam in boats and arrived in California with tales of being boarded by pirates. They had fully expected to be killed, but all the pirates wanted was their worldly goods, which they proceeded to strip from everybody, leaving them penniless.” They needed a lot of time to recover, Kelty added.

The children were different. They loved the attention they received from Fuller, who gave each child a big hug and kiss. “Camp Pendleton had done a good job of making them feel welcome, and someone had taught them several little songs which they sang constantly.”

Kelty was assigned to a 16-year-old boy who spoke a little English and asked her to call him by his new American name, Chris Nam. “He told me his father and grandfather were both ministers and that he intended to follow their paths."

He was already enrolled at Glendale High. Kelty and her husband Dick became his “American mom and dad” and later proudly attended his graduation.

Nam's father found a parish in Garden Grove and, eventually, all the refugees were employed and moved away, eliminating the need for an English program.

“I was sorry to see them go, but happy they were beginning to assimilate into our society, creating lives for themselves with a promise of a happy future.”

Kelty and Nam remained in touch as he earned a doctorate in theology and began teaching at a university on the East Coast.

Although she has lost contact in recent years, she thinks of him often and cherishes her memories of that special time and of a job well done.

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