Dr. Walter Nguyen’s story is of dedication and selfless service to family and community. From living under the control of the Viet Cong to founding a vital nonprofit for the refugee population of North Texas, Dr. Nguyen has pushed through every obstacle he has faced for the sake of his community. In this article, we will examine the life events that helped shape Dr. Nguyen’s undying passion for helping the refugees looking for a second chance and founding the pillar of the North Texas refugee community, Mosaic Family Services.
From very early in his life, Dr. Nguyen had a passion for education and exploring different cultures. During his senior year of high school, Dr. Nguyen participated in a study abroad program. He lived with an American family in Wisconsin and attended a local high school. It would be the family that would later sponsor Dr. Nguyen when fleeing Vietnam as a refugee.
Armed with the education and experience Dr. Nguyen received in America, he returned to his home in Vietnam to study English at the University of Saigon. It didn’t take long for people to notice Dr. Nguyen. During his college years, he worked for the US government as a Vietnamese instructor to American advisors. The services Dr. Nguyen provided as an English major were vital as American advisors’ needing to learn Vietnamese increased during the Vietnam War. After graduating from college in 1973, Dr. Nguyen was officially recruited to work at the Civil Service Center and the Foreign Information Bureau for the South Vietnamese government as the head of the press liaison department.
After several years of successfully running the press liaison department for the South Vietnamese government, the Vietnam War took a turn for the worse. On April 30, 1975, the Viet Cong took over Saigon, leading to a complete collapse of the South Vietnamese government in the region. At just the young age of 24, Dr. Nguyen was labeled an enemy of the communist regime by the newly instated Viet Cong government.
The following months would prove to be very difficult for Dr. Nguyen. He would be monitored by the new Veit Cong government day and night due there suspicions of his anti-communist ideologies. After losing his job at the recently dismantled South Vietnamese government, he struggled to find sustainable work. Many businesses refused to hire him based on his negative attention from the Viet Cong government. These businesses feared that any association with Dr. Nguyen would reflect poorly on their own businesses with the newly instated government.
As months turned into years, the oppression of the Viet Cong government continued to way down on Dr. Nguyen. Unable to find a place to live due to continued labor issues, he moved in with a relative. Eventually, while living with his relative, Dr. Nguyen was able to find some work as an English tutor for families desperate to flee Vietnam. These families hoped that having English skills would help create additional opportunities as they fled to western Europe or America.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Dr. Nguyen first tried to flee Vietnam. This initial escape was unsuccessful, and he was arrested, charged with treason, and sent to prison for three months. During his time in prison, he was threatened with prolonged imprisonment or even death if he continued to try and escape from the Veit Cong government.
After his time in prison, Dr. Nguyen realized that life in Vietnam was now impossible, and if he continued to stay, he would be jeopardizing his life and those around him. He joined a group of political prisoners and other people trying to escape Vietnam. It was while he was in this group that they planned his second escape attempt from the Veit Cong government. Unlike Dr. Nguyen’s first attempt at escape, this second attempt was going to be much more organized and planned out. At the time, the Veit Cong government was looking to have anyone of Chinese descent deported. Dr. Nguyen’s group hoped to take advantage of this and use it as a means of escape. Unfortunately, this second escape attempt would also end in failure. Dr. Nguyen was forced to live on the boat that the escape group had purchased due to the fact he had nowhere to go. In the following years, he would attempt to escape three more times. All of these escape attempts would end in failure. He was imprisoned twice during this time.
It wasn’t until November of 1982 that Dr. Nguyen was able to make a successful escape attempt. Working as a fisherman, Dr. Nguyen and a group of men secretly planned to use their fishing boats as a means of escape. What followed would be fit for any Hollywood studio. In the cover of darkness, Dr. Nguyen, alongside 36 others, set out on a fishing boat in the hopes of making it to the Phillippines. After three days, the fishing boat found itself in the middle of the South China Sea. Both food and water ran low, and many passengers began to get sick. At 8 p.m. on the third day, what can only be described as a miracle occurred. A French vessel, the Le Goelo, spotted the small fishing boat. Initially, Dr. Nguyen and the other fishing boat passengers feared that the spotted boat belonged to the Veit Cong government. However, they learned that Doctors of the World commissioned the Le Goelo to rescue Vietnamese refugees fleeing the country.
Dr. Nguyen among other Vietnamese refugees rescued by the Le Goelo, a French ship chartered by Doctors of the World to rescue Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea. November 7, 1982.
After being fed and treated well by the crew of Le Goelo, Dr. Nguyen and the other 36 passengers arrived in the Phillippines on November 10, 1982. The Phillippines, who had dealt with fleeing Vietnamese refugees for years, were well equipped for Dr. Nguyen and his group. The Committee of Vietnamese Refugees of Palawan quickly found a place for Dr. Nguyen to sleep, eat, and begin his new life as a refugee. Once settled in the Philippines, Dr. Nguyen reached out to the host family that allowed him to live with them while attending high school in Wisconsin to begin the process of moving to the United States. Due to the fact that he worked for the US government in the past, Dr. Nguyen was given priority to resettle in the United States.
Once in the United States, Dr. Nguyen and his brother moved in with their former host family in Ashland, Wisconsin. It took about three months for him to find his first job at a factory in a little town called Wahpeton, North Dakota.
Dr. Nguyen worked at the factory for a little over a year before finding a job as a bilingual case worker for Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota in Fargo in 1984. During his time at Lutheran Social Services, Dr. Nguyen worked with many unaccompanied children from Vietnam who were placed through Lutheran Immigration Services once arriving in the United States. During his time working as a case worker for the Lutheran Social Services, Dr. Nguyen discovered his love for social work. He attended the University of Minnesota and received his master’s in social work.
The year 1988 would turn out to be one of the most impactful years for Dr. Nguyen. This would be the year Dr. Nguyen would achieve his dream of becoming a United States citizen. But more importantly than that, this would be the fateful year that Dr. Nguyen traveled to Texas to visit his brother and ended up getting much more than he could ever imagine. It was during this trip that he met his now wife Angie, who is also a refugee. After much consideration, Dr. Nguyen made the fateful decision to move to Dallas, Texas, to be closer to Angie and his brother.
When Dr. Nguyen first arrived in Dallas, Texas, in 1989, he was shocked to see the number of refugees living in the city. While living in Minnesota, Dr. Nguyen had many preconceived notions about Texas and the south as a whole. Based on what he was told, he believed he would encounter a hostel atmosphere for refugees and immigrants alike. However, once he arrived in Dallas, he found the city extraordinarily diverse and full of compassionate and friendly people.
It didn’t take long for Dr. Nguyen to get heavily involved with other immigrants and refugees who called Dallas home. He was able to find a job at Dallas Multicultural Community Center. He helped refugees with various employment, social services, and mental health counseling.
Wanting to further engrain himself in the refugee community of Dallas, Dr. Nguyen went on to work for the nonprofit Dallas Challenge. The nonprofit worked with young people struggling with substance abuse by providing education and prevention. When coming on board, Dallas Challenge wanted Dr. Nguyen to help develop a program in East Dallas focusing on substance abuse education prevention for the Asian population. They would train Dr. Nguyen for three years and then allow him to transform the program into its own entity.
After three years of hard work and dedication, Dr. Nguyen had everything he needed to form his own organization. In 1993, Dr. Nguyen formed a board of directors and officially started East Dallas Counseling Center. Little did anyone know at the time that this was the birth of one of the most significant social services organizations for immigrants and refugees in North Texas.
The momentum that the East Dallas Counseling Center had was unprecedented. Dr. Ngyuyen changed the name to Mosaic Family Services and, by 2001, had expanded the services provided to include a multicultural family violence program and the first anti-human trafficking program in Texas. Now, Mosaic Family Services is a pillar in the refugee and immigrant communities of North Texas. Mosaic continues to grow and provides its much-needed services to hundreds of refugees every year.
The story of Dr. Nguyen shows us all that through perseverance and dedication to one’s community, we can all strive to build a better world.
In 2018, Dr. Nguyen participated in a project with the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, called “Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans.” This project documents the stories of Vietnamese refugees who made North Texas their home after resettling in the United States.
You can hear Dr. Nguyen’s story in his own words by visiting the “Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans,” project page here: https://becomingtexansbecomingamericans.org/items/show/67.