It has been almost 30 years since she left her native Vietnam.
But while she thrives in Ottawa — a city she’s happily called home since 1981 — lawyer Nhung Hoang remains active in the immigrant community helping people in refugee camps.
“I have been a refugee, so I want to help them,” she said. “They need a place that they can call home.”
Looking back on her arrival in Ottawa, Hoang said the first time she stepped out of the hotel she was staying in, it was so cold that she had to immediately run back inside. It was a sunny day, so she just assumed it would be warm.
After all, the 25-year-old had just flown to Canada after a six-month stay in a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
Before arriving in Hong Kong, Hoang had worked as an English as a second language teacher in Danang, Vietnam.
In July 1980 — unable to tolerate life under the communist regime — Hoang’s parents put her and her brother on a boat to Hong Kong.
They spent five days at sea before the Hong Kong Royal Marine Police escorted the boat to shore.
Because she could speak English, Hoang worked as an interpreter at the Red Cross clinic in the refugee camp until the Government of Canada sponsored her and her brother to move to Ottawa.
When she arrived, Hoang took a four-month course in electronics assembly at Algonquin College.
Despite a degree in education from a university in Vietnam, she could only find work in a factory. After one year in the factory, she enrolled at the University of Ottawa and got a sociology degree, which was followed by a law degree in 1988. Huang was called to the bar in March 1990.
“At the time, my mom and dad were still in Vietnam. My father worked for the former regime and they could hide some gold that they could sell to eat,” she said. “That’s how I could go to school. We were lucky that we didn’t have to work very hard to send money back home to them.”
She married Jonathan Chaplan in 1993; he’s learned to speak fluent Vietnamese. They have a son, 15.
“In Canada, to use the title of an exhibition at Canadian Museum of Civilization … we are Vietnamese Boat People: No Longer,” she said. “Many of us became engineers, computer programmers, medical doctors, dentists, pharmacists, professors, teachers and business people.”