Originally reported on December 10, 2014
By: Matt Weinstein, Rob Romano, and Emma Pettinga SYRACUSE (NCC NEWS) — Standing in line at a Panera, 39-year-old Ngoc Huynh, of Syracuse, wondered what she was going to do next. After working at the Post-Standard for over 12 years, she, along with 152 other employees, lost her job.
“I was devastated,” said Huynh. “I thought it was going to be my career for the rest of my life.”
But as fate would have it, an opportunity would soon tap her on the shoulder.
Toni Maxwell, the Director of Development and Public Relations for Catholic Charities in Onondaga County, had seen Huynh’s work in the paper and just happened to be in the same Panera.
“[I] had distant knowledge of Ngoc, but I had great respect for her work,” said Maxwell.
After approaching Huynh, it was to Maxwell’s surprise to discover that Huynh would be losing her job. Maxwell immediately encouraged Huynh to apply for an open position at Catholic Youth Outreach, a refugee resettlement center in Syracuse.
Huynh applied for the opening, and on Christmas eve, CYO hired Huynh.
“It was fate,” she said.
Embracing The Challenge
Even during weekends, Ngoc Huynh’s desk at CYO is covered in paperwork.
As Job Development Manager for refugees at CYO, Huynh manages a network of local and regional employers for refugee job placement. CYO settles anywhere from 500-600 refugees a year into the Syracuse area, and Huynh’s job is to make sure every adult has employment.
“The best part of the center is helping us find jobs,” said Beatrice Neema, a refugee who is now a secretary at CYO. “We learn the culture of America: to stand straight, to use direct eye contact, to speak educatedly. In some cultures, it is offensive to look someone directly in the eye. The center helps us understand this so that we become Americans.”
According to Huynh, some employers are wary of hiring refugees who don’t speak English, which often leads to discrimination.
“To be honest, how much English do you need to know if you’re cleaning toilets?” said Huynh.
Employers try to use a barter system, often requesting workers of a certain race, Huynh said. Finding employment for refugees over the preferences of employers is part of Huynh’s daily work. Generally, Huynh changes the employer’s perspective by making them hire outside what they want, causing employers to admit their mistake, and in turn, expand the job network, Huynh said.
Recalling an instance of a Nepalese family, Huynh said the family’s only son came to her for advice on whether to go to college or to take a job at a local plant.
“He wanted more food on the table for his sisters,” said Huynh. “I told him, going to college will provide you the opportunity to take care of them for the rest of their lives.”
The center provides translators to help refugees learn how to do their new job, easing the transition for a refugee into the workforce. The refugees only need a chance to prove themselves capable of work in America, said Huynh.
“If you give our refugees a chance, you’ll find out that some of them are really smart and savvy,” said Huynh. “Majority are willing to work really hard and take any job.”
Many refugees work in the restaurant business using skills learned in a culinary arts class taught by Huynh. Volunteering outside her regular hours, she instructs the class a few days out of every week, according to Maxwell.
This year, CYO has a Refugee Social Services Program grant to facilitate physicals and check-ups for refugees. With this grant, Huynh, and the case managers she oversees now have more responsibility than they have had in past years, Huynh said.
“They are taking people to their doctors’ appointments, picking up their welfare checks, and getting them to school,” said Huynh. “It’s almost impossible to find any of the case managers in the office.”
The program has transformed because of Huynh’s willingness to run the extra mile, according to Maxwell.
“What we’ve seen since she came on board is an extraordinary energy,” said Maxwell. “She does not leave a single opportunity lying there…always on the alert to find the best match for the people we are trying to find work for.”
Before refugees arrive, CYO has already matched them with housing. After arrival, case managers explain the concepts of electricity, what a refrigerator is, that there is cold and hot water available, and sometimes even how to use a toilet.
“A refugee doesn’t choose to come here or anywhere in the United States,” said Maxwell. “A refugee is given the resettlement opportunity as a lifeline; their lives are in danger.”
One Of Her People
While it wasn’t until two years ago that Huynh started her job, Huynh has been surrounded by refugees her whole life.
Growing up in Nebraska, Huynh helped translate for local Vietnamese refugee families. Along with this, Huynh’s parents did not speak a word of English, and they heavily relied on their 6-year-old daughter.
“I did a lot of translating work in the community, always for free,” said Huynh. “People would ask if little Ngoc was available… ‘Could she come to the doctor or social services with me?’”
Huynh said she was an adult living in a child’s body.
When it came time to apply for college, Huynh knew two things: she wanted to study journalism and to be as far away from Nebraska as possible. Her dreams came true when she was accepted to the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
“I remember seeing Connie Chung on television and then saying, ‘Oh my gosh there is an Asian woman on television,’” said Huynh. “That’s possible?”
Connie Chung inspired Huynh to study journalism so that she could share the stories of her family.
“I remember saying I want to do that,” said Huynh. “I want to tell our stories. I want to tell stories of our people and what we’ve been through.”
Huynh, like the people she assists on a daily basis, came to America to escape persecution.
She too is a refugee.
During the Vietnam War, all the men in Hunyh’s family aided American forces. With the communist takeover in 1975, they were surrounded by their enemies.
“My great uncle served as county executive,” said Huynh. “They pretty much had a town square meeting and made all of our family members come out and watch him get murdered. It was pretty much a warning to us, if you guys work with the Americans, this is what we’re going to do.”
Communist soldiers came by every few months and rounded them up, took Huynh’s family members to jail and sent them to be re-educated, said Huynh.
“My grandfather knew that staying in Vietnam meant death for our family,” said Huynh.
In 1979, the Huynh family and their closest friends crammed 52 people onto a fishing boat about 20 feet in length. Aware of the life threatening risks of fleeing a country, the family set out to either make it to a refugee camp or accept death, according to Huynh.
“We didn’t have any more food or water after a few days at sea,” said Huynh. “My mother thought I wasn’t going to live much longer.”
After days of starvation, Huynh’s grandfather spotted a Japanese oil tanker in the distance. However, the tanker avoided SOS signals and cries for help because pirates were commonplace in Indochinese waterways, said Huynh.
“My grandfather and uncle realized that the boat was turning away from us because they probably just thought we were pirates; they probably just saw the grenades,” said Huynh.
Aware of the brutal treatment they would face if pirates attacked, the Huynh’s and their friends carried arms for their own protection, according to Huynh.
“[Pirates would] attack your boat, rape all of your women and children,” said Huynh. “They would kill the men…sink your boat, and leave [women and children] to drown.”
With grenades, her grandfather intended to protect family dignity.
“If we get attacked by pirates, we were pretty much going to bomb ourselves up and bomb them too,” said Huynh. “We were not going to let them do that to our family.”
When the tanker did not respond, the men brought the women and children, including Ngoc, from below the deck to prove they meant no harm and needed aid.
“They saw the kids, and they turned their boat around,” said Huynh.
After making their escape, Huynh and her family had a new path to traverse, the journey to a new life in Japan. The Huynh family began their life at a Red Cross refugee center. There was one problem.
“If you’re not Japanese, you’ll never become a citizen,” said Huynh.
That is when Ngoc and her family learned about life in the United States.
“We found out in America anybody can become a citizen,” said Huynh.
To settle in the United States from Japan, a church or organization had to sponsor the Huynh family. This meant that for the first time in their journey the Huynh family separated.
“Most agencies or church groups only sponsor one family, not a whole extended family,” said Huynh. “For us, it was devastating because we went through everything together.”
The organization that sponsored the Huynh family spread them across the United States. Huynh arrived Pocono, Maryland with her parents. Despite being in the United States, Huynh’s family didn’t comprehend the level of freedom they had. When Huynh was in kindergarten, she told her teacher that her family was a group of indentured servants.
“[My teacher] came to my house and demanded to see our sponsors,” said Huynh. “It was funny because at that point we found out that we were free to do whatever we wanted.”
This is the moment she realized what America had to offer, said Huynh.
“I do believe America is still a land of opportunity,” said Huynh. “The American Dream is alive and well.”