When Loc Nam Nguyen — director of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles’ Immigration and Refugee department — retired on July 31, he had worked 39 years and eight months for the agency by his own reckoning. He has been married to Lan Mgoclan Tran for 35 years. And they still live in the same Monterey Park house where they raised two daughters, Catherine and Caroline.

“Some of my friends tell me, ‘Loc, you are abnormal in the United States,’” he reported, sitting behind a small wood desk in a small corner office in the two-story building on James M. Wood Boulevard that once housed The Tidings.  

“I say, ‘How come?’

“And they say, ‘Because not many people in America are married to the same woman for 35 years, live in the same house for 35 years and work for the same place for more than 35 years. You are abnormal.’”

Then Mr. Loc, as he is known, laughed so hard he had to bend over.

The 71-year-old soft-spoken yet animated man didn’t really want a final interview. The work itself brought him way more rewards and recognition than he ever imagined. But now, on this Wednesday morning, he talked freely about the challenges and joys of helping refugees resettle and immigrants survive during his nearly four decades at Catholic Charities.

But first he was asked to speak about his own refugee sojourn from war-ravaged Vietnam to Camp Pendleton, the sprawling U.S. Marine Corps base in San Diego County, to Los Angeles.

After attending college in South Vietnam, Loc was drafted into the South Vietnamese army, where he became a war correspondent for almost three years. That served him well until North Vietnamese forces drove towards the capital city in the early spring of 1975. A Marine major told him he had to leave early the next morning on the last plane out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport.

He did on April 28, the day before North Vietnam forces started shelling the airport and two days before the Viet Cong marched into Saigon. By the afternoon of April 30, they had captured the city, raising their Communist flag over the presidential palace of South Vietnam.

“I would have been the first one to be arrested, because I was in the military,” he said. “They were going to be looking for people like me. I would have been sent to a reeducation camp and probably killed.”

n‘Farewell Saigon’

Instead, Loc, who was 30 years old, wound up with thousands of Vietnamese in the quickly raised refugee tent city at Camp Pendleton. For many refugees, it seemed like they had come to the promised land. But he deeply missed his parents and 10 brothers and sisters, most of whom remained in Vietnam.

“When I finally came to the camp, I was so depressed and disappointed,” he recalled. “We lost our country, I lost my family, everything. And we had no idea what was going to happen in the rest of our lives. I wrote a song called ‘Farewell Saigon’ about what I lost and being here alone. It helped me feel better and to go to sleep. But I still cried.

“So I killed time by volunteering. I didn’t care, any job. But I could not stay in my tent [sleeping beside 40 other refugees]. So every night I went to the Red Cross. I asked for any volunteer job.”

This led to volunteering with the U.S. Catholic Conference, which today is the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). A month later, he was hired to help resettle other refugees at the camp. “I was still depressed, but at least I spent my time helping people,” he said. “But I cried whenever I saw a whole family leave the camp.”  

After the camp closed that fall, Loc himself got into the old Ford Pinto he had managed to buy with his $2.10/hour pay and headed north to L.A. He landed a job in a factory that made waterbeds, where he didn’t have to speak English, and found a room close by to rent. Both gave him confidence that he could survive here. And after the Catholic Welfare Bureau (now Catholic Charities of Los Angeles) hired him as a case aide at a monthly salary of $660/month, the Buddhist was sure he would make it.

With his Camp Pendleton volunteer experience, he related well to refugees from Southeast Asia. And they continued to come to America, especially after Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. The law committed the U.S. to resettle at least 50,000 refugees a year who qualified for “special humanitarian concern.”

For Loc it meant formal education and training in refugee resettlement, working with immigrants and doing social work. He rose from being a case aide to assistant counselor to caseworker, then into administration to become the program director of Immigration and Refugee Services.  “I was just the right person at the right time,” he noted with a half-shrug.

nWaves of refugees

From 1975 to 1985, Loc’s attention at Catholic Charities of Los Angeles was focused on refugees from his homeland and throughout Southeast Asia. But over the last four decades, there has been wave after wave of oppressed people from Poland, Cuba, Haiti, Ethiopia and Eureka in Africa, and Bosnia. He has handled them all. Recently, families and individuals have been, and still are, fleeing from Iran — Armenians persecuted because of their Christian religion — as well as from war-torn Afghanistan.

All share a common bond: these men, women and children were either persecuted or would be persecuted if and when U.S. forces left their country. All are seeking a safe haven, a refuge, which distinguishes them from immigrants.  

“The difference today between refugees and immigrants is refugees, like me, were forced to get out of their country,” he pointed out. “It was not their choice. I didn’t care what country took me. Immigrants, they choose to go. That’s the difference. Refugees are persecuted.”

While this divide seems pretty clear, Loc says the current anti-immigrant mood in the United States — stirred up by the likes of Donald Trump, who leads a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates in most polls — also carries over to refugees.

“They are all the same to most people,” he said with a sudden frown. “We have big problems right now. Number one, you see Mr. Donald Trump’s remarks and how he is so popular in the election poll. That tells you something. But the U.S. government is responsible, too, with all their new bureaucratic requirements.

“Catholic Charities and other private agencies get the same money from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to resettle a refugee today as we got 25 years ago — $1,000 per person. Also now it’s 24 hours to do a required home visit with a client, whereas before it was much longer. Before, I could do 100 within 30 days. Now you can only do 50.”

Loc doesn’t let Catholic parishes off the hook, either.

After the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon, a number of local parishes, under the direction of pastors who came of age in the radical-minded 1960s and early ‘70s, sponsored refugees. He says the newer generation of pastors “have no idea” what’s involved in resettling refugees. Moreover, local parish outreach efforts are targeted to newly arrived immigrants who have nothing but the clothes on their backs. Refugees can at least apply for government assistance because of their legal status.  

“So that’s a challenge for someone who replaces me,” he said. “It’s harder to raise money for these new refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria because of the prejudice against them.

“And that’s affected my work,” he admitted in a confidential tone. “You feel like no one understands you. And you cannot talk to people, because the new refugees are not welcomed in the same way the Vietnamese were.”

n‘The real joy’

So what has kept Loc soldering on all these 39 years and 8 months?

After all, he’s had very successful side careers in music, public speaking and as an emcee at popular gatherings throughout the worldwide Vietnamese community for decades. There was even a movie, “Green Dragon,” loosely based on his life in 1980. And his song “Farewell Saigon” is still popular.

Loc didn’t take much time to think about an answer.

“The real joy is the success of refugees,” he said. “To see them contribute to the country. That’s the reward, that’s the reward. That’s kept me going the last 40 years. Not only with refugees at work, but with my own relatives, too, who took years to resettle here. That’s why I owe this country and Catholic Charities so much.”

He tells a story of a woman he worked with back in Vietnam. He helped her raise $500 for a DNA test that let her join her husband and child as a “designated” refugee. Seventeen years later, he got a letter and photo from her. She wrote that there were now three children and how the family owned two houses in the Dallas, Texas, area. She added that her son, who she brought to see him in Vietnam, was now in the U.S. Army.

Then another about a man from Ethiopia who didn’t want to go on a job interview for one reason or another. On the way with Loc, he protested and protested until he finally got out of the car. But 10 years later the reluctant refugee paid a visit to Los Angeles and Catholic Charities, proudly reporting that he is a cab driver and has been able to support his growing family.              

“That’s joy!” the retiring Catholic Charities worker exclaimed, raising his arms high in the air. “Do you get any reward better than that? When you read that letter and see the photo, or they come back and tell you how good they are doing. Of course, you appreciate all of the awards that you have received. But that doesn’t compare to these other things.

“That’s the reward,” he repeated. “That’s the best reward.”

n‘I’m blessed’

Loc told his staff members if they ever need someone to pick up a client late at night or on a weekend from the airport, to call him. He didn’t want them to become burnt out.

And then there’s his advocacy work.

“In my future, actually, I want to inform the young generation,” he said. “I want to visit schools and universities, to tell students about refugees and immigrants. I want to tell them about the suffering of these people. I want to say, ‘Don’t forget that many of you, your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents — were immigrants or refugees.’ That’s number one what I want to do.

“Number two, I want to help minority communities to create an archive for their children. Like, you know, for me and my fellow refugees from Vietnam. So they can be proud.

“And I want to keep speaking on behalf of immigrants and refugees,” he stressed. “And I want to create more volunteers and financial support for them.”

Loc stopped talking, leaning back a little in his swivel chair.

But then in a lower voice said, “The last thing I want to say is I’m blessed to have worked for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I’m blessed to be employed by Catholic Charities. I think more important is I’m blessed to have a very dedicated staff. When I hired them, I told them, ‘If you’re looking for just a good-paying job, this is not the place. But this job will bring you satisfaction if you have heart — if you want to help people who need you.’”

Something Mr. Loc has done for 39 years and 8 months.