The Oldest Orphan
by Thomas Ho
My Parents Died
In 1949, the year I was born, my homeland of Vietnam—though divided into North and South—continued to war against each other. I was born in the South, in Phuong Dinh Province. Shortly after my birth, my mother passed away due to complications from childbirth, and when I was nine, my father was killed in a gun battle with the North. At that time, I went to live with my grandmother.
Grandmother lived with my dad’s sister and her husband in another province. She lived to be 95, crediting her long life to the fresh air of the countryside and hard work. After her death, I stayed on with my aunt because the area was somewhat secure. During the daytime, South Vietnamese militia patrolled the area, but at night, North Vietnamese guerrillas (known as Viet Cong) would sometimes come and ask for food and money—which they said was tax. If we did not give to them, we faced trouble.
If the South Vietnamese military detected movement in the villages at night, they would drop bombs on the villages. To protect ourselves from the bombs, we built bunkers for shelter to sleep in at night. Once a shell hit the bunker our family was in. As smoke filled the bunker, my aunt grabbed her twin baby boys and began running to a neighboring bunker for shelter. She was hit by a fragment of the bomb and died within the hour. It was horrible to see! Miraculously, the babies survived. After that fateful night, I stayed on with my uncle, helping him work the rice paddies and tend to his five children. But with me, it was just too many mouths to feed. There was never enough food for all the family.
On My Own
At age 14, I needed to find a way to live on my own. A wealthy family hired me to tend their cows and watch their house when they were gone. The elderly parents had been killed, and the adult children were happy to have my help. But the area was becoming more controlled day and night by the Viet Cong. And every night the ground shook as South Vietnamese bombs hit their targets. I needed to go south to find freedom, but I didn’t know which way to go. My mind was filled with much apprehension.
One day an opportunity arrived. I was given permission to accompany one of the daughters to the city of Danang to buy supplies for a wedding. As we traveled through a small town, I slipped away and found a bus terminal. Approaching the bus driver and explaining that I had no money, I asked if he would take me to Quang Ngai, a province farther south where I knew a relative lived. He looked hard at me for a moment, then agreed, saying, “You’ll have to sit on the bus floor.” At the end of the long bus ride, the driver realized that I had no idea the direction I should go. He took my hand, walked me to the other side of the town, and helped me find my relative’s house. This man—a total stranger—was like a guiding spirit to me. Up to this point in my life, I had had no religious experience. My parents had been Catholic. I remember the picture of Jesus we had in our house and an altar where we placed incense and kept a picture of a relative who had passed away. Through this man’s kindness, I sensed that God was guiding my path.
A Friend’s Help
My aunt let me stay only a few days before buying me a bus ticket and sending me to an uncle who lived in the town of Cam Ranh. Because I was his nephew, my uncle was willing to take me in, but his wife resisted. They had nine children, and times were hard! They let me sleep on the floor and provided some food for me. I knew I was not welcome, and that was an unpleasant feeling! I was an orphan with no one who really cared for me.
Then—like a miracle—a man who had known my father invited me to stay with his family. They had five children, but the man and his wife worked on the American military base in Cam Ranh and had steady incomes. I worked hard to help pay for my upkeep, and this friend offered to let me go to school in the afternoons after I finished my work. This was the first time in my life that I was able to go to school. I entered the fifth grade!
Then one day, I saw a truck I had never seen before—a flatbed military truck coming down the street, loaded with children and boxes. It stopped in the middle of an open park in the town, and the children got down and began giving out all kinds of gifts to the local children—toys, school supplies, clothes, and food packages. I was told that every month the truck came and gave out gifts to the village children. When I asked where the children came from, I was told that they came from the Cam Ranh Christian Orphanage. I asked my dad’s friend to take me to the orphanage.
The Oldest Orphan
When I got to the orphanage, I was met by a lady named Miss Xuan. I told her I didn’t have a father or mother and all my relatives had too many children to give me a place to live. I boldly asked if I could come live at the orphanage. Miss Xuan looked at the man with me who explained that he was a friend of the family and verified that what I said was true. Then I was given some papers to fill out telling my history, parents’ names, where I was born, etc. The following week I entered the orphanage.
The year was 1969. I had just turned 20 years old—the oldest of all the children. Life at the orphanage was a new beginning for me. We were taught the Bible, had prayer meetings every night, and gave thanks before we ate a meal. I learned about God—that He loved me enough to die on the cross for my sin. In 1970, I surrendered my life completely to Christ and was baptized. In my heart, I felt that God had chosen me for a purpose—to spread His love to others in need.
My greatest desire had always been to get an education. In school, I struggled but was eager to learn. Every evening after dinner, the children would sit around a table and do homework. We were tutored by dorm leaders in math, English, history, or anything we had a problem with. Sometimes even the teachers at school came and helped us. Within a year, my grades improved. I became a leader in my class and was chosen with four other boys to study Kungfu. Sometimes, because we had nice binders, backpacks, and even some bikes given by American military, the orphan children were attacked on our way to school or church. So, being skilled in Kungfu helped keep us safe. (I still practice Kungfu today and have taught it to my daughter.)
My main job at the orphanage was to tend the chickens, making sure they were fed well, and guarding them from being stolen at night. I was in charge, but a team of younger boys was assigned the task of helping me. We built a fence around the chicken house and buried the posts two feet deep to keep people from stealing the chickens. One night someone dug beneath our fence and stole 35 chickens. We not only lost our chickens, but it hurt our pride that the bad guys had outsmarted us!
Life at the orphanage was the most normal life I had ever experienced. There were no bombings and no VC taxes to pay. Then in January 1975, we heard that towns in the north were being lost. By the second week of April, the leadership of the orphanage decided we needed to evacuate. Miss Xuan chartered two buses and one van, and all the orphans and workers traveled by land and sometimes by boat to Saigon and eventually going farther south to the coastal city of Rach Yia. We fitted out an old boat and escaped to an island on April 29. Then, on the morning of April 30, the very morning South Vietnam was taken over by Communist North Vietnam, we escaped into international waters. Miraculously, our boat made it to Singapore where the US State Department agreed to receive us as refugees. After being processed at Fort Chafee military base in Arkansas and a short odyssey at a ranch in Houston, we were welcomed at Buckner Children’s Home in Dallas, Texas.
High School and Beyond
During the three months of our first summer in Dallas, the orphans were given cassette tapes in English to listen to. When the fall school semester began, I entered 10th grade at Skyline High School—and I was 26 years old. The teachers gave the Vietnamese orphans lots of help, as did the American students. Even though I was much older, they were happy to have me as a fellow student. The way of life in America was so totally different! Even if you were old, you could go to school, and people even admired you for it. There was no prejudice. I felt welcomed.
After graduating, I attended Eastfield College, thinking I would become an electrical engineer. But when the semiconductor industry opened up, I was hired by a company where I worked for the following 30 years. Then in 2009, the company moved their business to Singapore, and I was laid off. Through the years, I had worked through my church to help Vietnamese immigrants settle well into life in the Dallas area. Now I was free to do mission work in Vietnam.
In 2010, 74 former orphans and staff, family members, and representatives from Buckner gathered in Vietnam to visit the site of our old home and to bring gifts to orphan children. The event was covered by the Dallas Morning News and media in Vietnam. Later, the orphan group set up a charity called Cam Ranh Orphans (CRO) to provide scholarships for needy children who want to go to school but don’t have the opportunity.
At Age 70
Amazingly, nine years after being away from the semiconductor field, I have recently been rehired by a new company, Qorvo. I never thought about going back to work in this field, but when I was offered the job, it seemed that God has a purpose for me there. The hiring supervisors only took five minutes interviewing me. They checked everything: my background, drug use, passport, consent of military—but not my age! Being hired back at age 70 is truly God’s doing!
Throughout my life, I have been the recipient of much kindness. People helped me who didn’t even know me! Now, by helping needy children receive a Christmas present or have school supplies, I hope to pay back in a small way. When I see the faces of the children, I remember how joyful I felt as an orphan to receive something given out of love. The Bible teaches that God cares for the orphan and that He is a Father to the fatherless. I praise Him for His great love and protection of me as an orphan, and for giving me the privilege today of blessing others as He has blessed me.
“The Lord protects the foreigners. He defends the orphans and widows, but he blocks the way of the wicked” (Psalm 146:9, NCV).