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Mr. Vy Van Pham, the founder of Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota, was a humanitarian and selfless advocate for many refugees and immigrants. Northeast Minneapolis resident Vy Van Pham’s accomplishments span continents, decades and many different causes, but they all have one thing in common, making other people’s lives better. He grew up in North Vietnam and escaped communism by fleeing to South Vietnam with his mother, his wife Be Nguyen, and nine children, in 1955. His labor union leadership started at a rubber tree plantation owned by the French Michelin Tire Company, in which he later successfully organized the first strike ever against them. He later became the Deputy Secretary-General, and Commissioner of International Affairs of the Confederations of Vietnam Trade Union. Pham also advised both Presidents of the Republic of Vietnam as a member of the National Economic Council.

When South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, Pham and his family left everything behind and fled. Hofstede said Pham negotiated with a barge company, that he had previously led a strike against, to transport 200 people out of Vietnam. Pham eventually landed in the United States with “not a penny in his pocket” and settled in Minnesota. In his early years in the U.S., Pham worked as a national organizer for the AFL-CIO. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter invited Pham to meet with him in the White House. Carter also invited him to a U.S. Governor’s Convention. After completing school, Pham began a career in social work that lasted 30 years. He worked with the refugee community and with young people as a social worker for Hennepin County, where he was also a human rights commissioner.

Pham helped found the Vietnam Center in St. Paul, putting up his own house as collateral, which later transitioned to the creation of the Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota in 1987. Furthermore, he has helped build Buddhist temples, including the Phat An Temple in Roseville, and was a delegate to the Democratic Party convention. He also served on the Minneapolis Mayor’s Office Indochinese Advisory Council, on the Cablevision Advisory Council, in the Twin Cities Area Human Rights Coalition and the Minnesota ARC Steering Committee. From helping refugees, to working as a union organizer in Vietnam, to advising national leaders on diplomacy, to making sure his nine children went to college, Pham touched many lives, but those who knew him best said they didn’t realize how many people he helped, until his death. Pham was one of 39 people the Minnesota Historical Society interviewed for its “Asians in Minnesota Oral History” project. Visit here to read more about his past and hear the interviews, in which he provides insight into the refugee experience and talks about the labor movement in Vietnam and its ties to the international labor movement.

Vy Van Pham


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On April 30, 1975 fall of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War, prompted the first large-scale wave of immigration; many with close ties to America or the South Vietnamese government feared communist reprisals. Most of the first-wave immigrants were well-educated, financially comfortable, and proficient in English. According to 1975 US State Department data, more than 30 percent of the heads of first-wave households were medical professionals or technical managers, 16.9 percent worked in transportation, and 11.7 percent had clerical or sales jobs in Vietnam. Less than 5 percent were fishermen or farmers. The evacuation of the immigrants was organized in three major ways. The week before Saigon fell, 15,000 people left on scheduled flights followed by an additional 80,000 also evacuated by air. The last group was carried on U.S. Navy ships. During the spring of 1975 125,000 people left South Vietnam, followed by more than 5,000 in 1976-1977. They arrived at reception camps in the Philippines and Guam before being transferred to temporary housing at U.S. military bases, including Camp Pendleton (California), Fort Chaffee (Arkansas), Eglin Air Force Base (Florida) and Fort Indiantown Gap (Pennsylvania). After preparations for resettlement, they were assigned to one of nine voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) to help them find financial and personal support from sponsors in the U.S. South Vietnamese refugees were initially resented by Americans, since the memory of defeat was fresh; according to a 1975 poll, only 36 percent of Americans favored Vietnamese immigration. However, the U.S. government informed public opinion as it felt that it had a moral obligation to the refugees, and President Gerald Ford and Congress both agreed to pass the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, which allowed Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States under a special status and allocated $405 million in resettlement aid. To prevent the refugees from forming ethnic enclaves and minimize their impact on local communities, they were distributed throughout the country, but within a few years, many resettled in California and Texas. A second wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived from 1978 to the mid-1980s. Political and economic instability under the new communist government led to a migration unprecedented in Vietnam. South Vietnamese, particularly former military officers and government employees, were sent to “reeducation camps,” which were really concentration camps, for intensive political indoctrination. Famine was widespread, and businesses were seized and nationalized. Chinese-Vietnamese relations soured when China became Vietnam’s adversary in the brief Sino-Vietnamese War. To escape, many South Vietnamese fled on small, unsafe, crowded fishing boats. Over 70 percent of the first immigrants were from urban areas, but the “boat people” were generally lower socioeconomically, as most were peasant farmers or fishermen, small-town merchants or former military officials. Survivors were picked up by foreign ships and brought to asylum camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines from which they entered countries that agreed to accept them. The plight of the boat people compelled the US to act, and the Refugee Act of 1980 eased restrictions on the entry of Vietnamese refugees. From 1978 to 1982, 280,500 Vietnamese refugees were admitted. In 1979, the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) was established under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to allow emigration from Vietnam to the US and other countries. Additional legislation permitted Amerasian children and former political prisoners and their families to enter the US. Vietnamese immigration peaked in 1992, when many re-education-camp inmates were released and sponsored by their families in the US. Between 1981 and 2000, the country accepted 531,310 Vietnamese political refugees and asylum-seekers. By the early 1980s, a secondary resettlement was underway. Vietnamese refugees were initially scattered throughout the country in wherever they could find sponsorship. The majority (27,199) settled in California, followed by 9,130 in Texas and 3,500 to 7,000 each in Pennsylvania, Florida, Washington, Illinois, New York, and Louisiana. Economic and social factors, many then moved to warmer states, such as California and Texas, with larger Vietnamese communities, better jobs, and social safety nets. Minnesota was one of ten states that accepted the largest numbers of refugees.



The founding of VSS of MN

Having recognized the difficulties and challenges faced by the first group of Vietnamese refugees settling in Minnesota, Mr. Vy Pham had put up his house as collateral and led a small group of people in the Vietnamese community to start the Vietnam Center in 1987, which later transformed to the Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota. His mission and vision was to help Vietnamese refugees to acclimate to the new life and changes and assist those in need. Since its inception, the non-profit agency has opened its door to serve countless Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. Initially, VSS of MN was only serving the Vietnamese community, but later have extended its social services to the Korean, Chinese, Somali, and now the Burmese (Karen, Kareni) populations. Vietnamese Social Services (VSS) has been serving the community of over 25,000 Vietnamese-Americans in Minnesota for many years. Large numbers of former refugees have begun to flourish as a vital part of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic fabric of Minnesota.. VSS is proud to have played a role in this progress, with the majority of Vietnamese families now living in the metropolitan area having been touched by the outreach and services of VSS. Vietnamese Social Services (VSS) recognizes the need to expand its services beyond addressing the initial needs of refugees and immigrants where survival and immediate resettlement needs take precedence. Now, the agency is looking more and more to promoting the preservation of the unique cultural identity of the Vietnamese, to serve the needs of an aging first generation, and to find ways for the community to engage with the larger Minnesota society.

Initial Challenges:

Language barrier

After suffering war and psychological trauma, Vietnamese immigrants had to adapt to a very different culture. Language was the first barrier Vietnamese refugees with limited English proficiency had to overcome. English uses tonal inflection sparingly (primarily for questions); Vietnamese, a tonal language, uses variations in tone to differentiate between meanings of a sound. Ma can have one of six meanings, depending on tone: “ghost”, “but”, “code”, “rice plant”, “cheek” or “tomb”.Another difference between Vietnamese and English is the former’s widespread use of status-related pronouns. “You” is the only second-person singular pronoun in English, but the Vietnamese second-person singular pronoun varies by gender (anh or chị), social status (ông or ) and relationship (bạn, cậu or mày).

Family issues

Like other Asians, the Vietnamese emphasize parental status; however, American culture challenges this traditional value. Vietnamese American parents have expressed concern about decreasing authority over their children. Part of this concern is due to cultural differences; although corporal punishment is accepted in Vietnamese society as an effective way of educating children. Older, newly arrived Vietnamese Americans are polite in dealing with others and avoid expressing open disagreement; young Vietnamese-American straightforwardness of expression may be perceived as disrespectful by their elders.

Mental health

Emotional health was considered an issue common to many Vietnamese refugees, with war-related loss and the stress of adapting to a different culture leading to mental-health problems among refugees. The problems covered a broad spectrum, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, adjustment disorder, somatization, panic attacks, schizophrenia and generalized anxiety. About 40 percent of the children of resettled refugees experienced an increase in conduct and op-positional defiant disorders.


Vietnamese Americans’ income and social classes are diverse. In contrast to Vietnamese refugees who settled in France or Germany, and similar to their counterparts who arrived in Canada, The Czech Republic, The United Kingdom and Australia, refugees arriving in the United States often had a lower socioeconomic standing in their home country and more difficulty integrating due to greater linguistic and cultural barriers. Vietnamese Americans have arrived in the U.S. primarily as refugees, with little or no money. While not as academically or financially accomplished collectively as their East Asian counterparts.