Immigrants Have Made Oregon Strong for Generations

By Thomas Ngo

My parents left Vietnam in April 1975 because President Nixon couldn’t deliver on his promise to help South Vietnam. Air Force pilots from the south like my father, or civilians employed by the Americans like my mother, faced the prospect of starvation, hard labor, and execution.

My mother brought her siblings with her. They were some of the first to arrive in the US, via CIA-bought Air America planes that were nearly struck by artillery from the North Vietnamese Army.

They faced protesters as they were bused into Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California. These protesters were afraid that Vietnamese refugees like my mom, who risked her life by working for the US State Department, were Communists.

In 1975 in Lincoln, Neb., Thomas’s mom, Bivy Zeittonne, was photographed teaching her younger sister how to speak English.

“We were so blissfully happy to be in America that we waved at the protesters,” my mother said.

The day after she arrived, my mother got a job right away at the camp, helping process papers. Weeks later, a high school classmate of hers arrived at the base. It was my father. He and many of his fellow helicopter pilots made their journey to the US by landing their Huey choppers on the USS Midway—the Hueys were so numerous that they had to be pushed overboard. [Wikipedia photo]

My father convinced my mother that they should start their new life in the same town. So they set off with my mom’s siblings to live with their new sponsors in Lincoln, Nebraska. They both worked full-time jobs to support my aunts and uncles, who were learning English in America’s heartland. It didn’t take long for them to marry. They served fried chicken at their wedding reception.

Job opportunities in the Pacific Northwest beckoned, so they exchanged “good” 0ºF winter days for temperate climate and forests. My father worked with computer mainframe systems and my mother worked in insurance.

After I was born, my parents enrolled at Portland Community College. My father continued to work full-time while my mother took charge of parenting and household duties. After they both earned their associate’s degrees, my mother went back to work.

I live a privileged life thanks to my parents. They went from not having a single dime (you can’t exchange money from a collapsed government) to building a solid middle-class life in Portland. This was made possible through hard work at corporate offices and community colleges.

I will never forget that.

I graduated from the University of Portland, started a career in local government, continued my career in New York City, received a graduate degree from an Ivy League university, and am now back in Portland to help local government do a better job communicating with people.

I am not alone.

When we talk about what makes America great, we can find it among our immigrants. Aside from the First Peoples, our families all came from somewhere else. There may be talk of the American dream being dead. Tell that to the people that come here for a better life. Our dream hasn’t extinguished.

We are not alone.

Immigrants have made Oregon strong for generations. Join One Oregon and keep Oregon a welcoming state.

Thomas Ngo is a freelance photographer, an avid cyclist and works as a  public information officer for the City of Portland.

2018-03-10T16:07:09+00:00 January 21st, 2018|Stories|3 Comments


  1. Valerie January 25, 2018 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing, Thomas! What a wonderful story. Columbia misses you.

  2. Veronica January 26, 2018 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    This is so inspiring Thomas, thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Debora Leopold Hutchins January 27, 2018 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Love your historyThomas.

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