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Surviving Katrina inspires student to help international refugees

By Susan White

Long before Khanh Nguyen had even graduated from high school, she knew she wanted to work with international refugees. One of four children born to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen had spent most of her childhood growing up in a Vietnamese community in New Orleans. Although neighbors cared for one another, they still felt very isolated from the city and forgotten, she said. The experience gave Nguyen a glimpse into the obstacles that new immigrants often face.

Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina truly personalized those challenges for her. As the massive storm bore down on her city, she was forced to separate from her family while seeking safety. For five months, Nguyen – then a senior in high school – lived with distant relatives in Arkansas, uprooting her from her home, her siblings and her parents.

“It was very difficult, especially because the city I was staying in was so different from what I had known,” said Nguyen, who enters UNC’s School of Social Work this fall as a first-year MSW student.  “It was a small city and not very diverse. It felt lonely. I think the worst part was all the uncertainty.”

Nguyen said she came to understand – albeit on a smaller scale – the emotional turmoil that refugees, especially children, often endure. “It gave me a small taste of what it’s like to be displaced at a moment’s notice and not have anything,” she said. “For us, it was only a few months, but for many people, it’s years of their lives.”

From that moment, Nguyen knew her life’s journey was set. As an undergraduate student at Emory University in Georgia, she quickly found volunteer opportunities with local refugee families. Among her many activities, she worked as a tutor with a nonprofit group in Atlanta that assists women and children, including Bosnians, Somalis, Sudanese and Liberians.

“I think working with children really inspired me,” she said. “They could tell you about their experience and at the same time, they still showed so much innocence and hope.”

While at Emory, Nguyen also completed internships abroad, including in India where she embraced the idea of getting out of her “comfort zone.” She will do just that this fall when she joins her classmates on the UNC campus. Nguyen enters the School of Social Work with a BA degree in sociology and a minor in global health, culture and society. Enrolling in a program where she can also earn a dual degree in public health appealed to her, especially after working in Atlanta with a group of Bhutanese refugees and seeing first-hand the health barriers that many populations face.

“Because of language problems, they didn’t feel comfortable getting on a bus because they usually got lost,” she explained. “So they generally relied on a traditional mode of medicine rather than going to see a doctor. Because of the language barriers, they usually stuck to their own communities and were hesitant to seek out services.”

Long-term, she’d love to work with East African and Southeast Asian immigrants, but Nguyen has learned that so many of those fleeing persecution or war-torn countries share similar experiences and challenges. “I think that a lot of the young refugees I’ve worked with don’t really have any memories of their actual homes because most of their lives have been spent in camps and in transit,” she said. “So there are a lot of behavioral problems and a lot of mental health problems based on that instability.”

UNC’s School of Social Work will best prepare her for working with all of these clients and for working with the organizations that serve them, Nguyen said. Her interest of study also fits well with the School’s mission, said Sharon Thomas, the School’s director of recruitment, admissions and financial aid. “We sought to recruit Khanh – a highly competitive minority applicant – to our MSW program because of her commitment to underserved and underrepresented families in need,” Thomas said.

Growing up in a tight-knit community taught her many lessons, including that ultimately, “we’re all here to do something for one another,” Nguyen said. Part of her personal responsibility, she added, will involve educating others about valuing difference.

“I think there’s a lot to learn about how other people live and work,” she said. “It’s important to get a sense that we’re all part of a global community.”