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Diana Nguyen was 10 when she left Vietnam on a boat. It took 2 years to get to the U.S.

A photo of Diana Nguyen wearing a purple floral shirt and standing in front of a row of bamboo bushes.
Julia Reihs
Diana Nguyen came to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. Leaving the airport, she saw snow for the first time.

Diana Nguyen left her native Vietnam after her father was threatened with prison for serving in the South Vietnamese army.

She talks about encountering pirates in the Pacific Ocean, seeing snow for the first time and not taking anything for granted.

We're highlighting the voices of people from the Austin area who came to the U.S. from another country in celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month in June.

Read Diana's story below — originally published in 2019 — or tap the audio button above to listen. This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

"My name is Diana Nguyen, I'm from Vietnam.

"I was born in South Vietnam, I came to America in 1987. [We] left Vietnam in 1985 and my family spent two years in the refugee camps.

"My father attempted three time to leave Vietnam at that time. But in 1985, we received a letter from my cousin saying that they're going to close all the refugee camps. If my father wants to leave, he has to leave now. So we spent about six days on the Pacific Ocean. We were one of those Vietnamese boat people. We ended up encountering a lot of Thai pirates. I remember from my memories [it happened] three times. So my mom did not know anything — nobody wrote to us and told us, 'You're going to encounter pirates.'

"There's a total of 21 of us at the time. Originally, we started out with 24 people, but the pirates kidnapped two of my cousins and one of my sisters.

"A lot of people who get kidnapped got killed. My sister was able to — They returned her and my cousin a few months later. She told me that as long as you don't fight back [that] they actually rotate you around different pirates boats until I guess they're done with you and they drop you off at a location. That's where the Thai social services, they go pick her up. By the time [she] reunited with us was a total of about six months.

"To get to America, it was at that time — by that time, is not easy. You have to have a relative and sponsor in America. Luckily, we have my half-sister. She came in 1975, and they end up in York, Pennsylvania. So that's my first hometown when we arrive in 1987.

"I remember we arrived in January, so my first memory was stepping out at the airport [and] we see snow for the first time. So that was my first memory of America. It was cold, and seeing snow for the first time.

"I didn't really miss Vietnam. I was happy to be here. At that age I know that the only way — like my mom always tells us that, 'We're going to make it in America, and this is our opportunity to have a better life.'

"So we did our best to learn English and adapt and fit in. My goal back then for my mom was us to do good in school, and she said the only way out for us is having an education.

"Looking back at the experience that my family were refugee and why we left Vietnam. For a lot of people who grew up here, like my younger sister, they wouldn't — they sometimes take things for granted. For me, I've seen my family go through it. And now you look back at the immigrants from Mexico. Some people ask why they leave. You know, they're putting their children in danger. My parents did the same thing."

Julia Reihs is a photographer and videographer for KUT and KUTX. She covers daily news assignments and produces short-form documentary projects following local news and music.
Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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