There isn't much Nhung Tran-Davies remembers from that day in July 1979.

She was only five and after hours of travelling, her mother and five siblings were greeted by a crowd of strangers at the Edmonton International Airport.

Her only memory of that time has been reinforced through the years with an image captured by a newspaper photographer. It now hangs in a frame on her wall.

The faded, creased photo shows her beaming, holding a new doll in her hands.

Nhung Tran-Davies arrives

A newspaper clipping shows the day Nhung Tran-Davies arrived in Edmonton. She was five. (Edmonton Sun)

"I remember being excited," she says. "But there was so much going on with the reporters and with the interpreters that it was all a bit of blur."

Now nearly 40 years later, her life seems to have come full circle as she is the one anxiously waiting on the other side of the arrivals door, clutching a doll and eager to meet a family from Syria she has helped privately sponsor.

Like many Canadians, Tran-Davies has been deeply disturbed by the ongoing war and the images of desperate people cramming into rafts, trying to make a perilous journey toward a better life. 

But she also feels an overwhelming connection to them.

Fleeing Vietnam

Tran-Davies was born in Vietnam just one year before the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese army. In the following years, hundreds of thousands would try to flee the communist regime, with many loading into rickety boats and setting out across the South China Sea.

  • Learn more about Nhung Tran-Davies and her sponsorship efforts tonight on The National.

By the late 1970s, her mother was a widow, trying to provide for her six young children by working as a seamstress. She saw no future for her family in Vietnam.

"She put her faith and her trust in God when she decided to abandon everything and gathered us up and took us to sea on the boat."

'She put her faith and her trust in God when she decided to abandon everything and gathered us up and took us to sea in that boat.' - Nhung Tran-Davies, a former Vietnamese refugee

Tran-Davies remembers being in the bottom of a wooden boat filled with 300 people, and feeling suffocated as it was tossed about in rough seas.

Like more than 200,000 other Vietnamese refugees, she and her family ended up on the shores of Malaysia and eventually at a refugee camp, where they spent eight months before a church group in Alberta sponsored them to come to Canada.

Nhung Tran

Nhung Tran-Davies is shown just after she and her family arrived at a refugee camp in Malaysia in 1978. (Provided/Nhung Tran)

Vicky Baril was part of the congregation at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Enoch, Alta., and recalls the day the priest said they were going to bring over a special family.

"It was a widow with six children. Not everyone wanted a family like that. They thought it would be a burden on society. Well, let me tell you, this family is no burden."

In those first few days, Baril and the others helped the Tran family settle into their new home and register for school. In the weeks and months that followed, the sponsors were there to take the family to dentist appointments and even to the bank, where they helped Tran-Davies' mother get a mortgage.

"My mom made sure that we remained grateful to our sponsors. She made it a point for us to go visit the families every Christmas."

The sponsorship grew into a lasting friendship that has continued over decades through graduations, weddings and grandchildren.

'Similar to our situation'

Tran-Davies, who now has children of her own, works as a doctor in rural Alberta. When she decided to privately sponsor a Syrian family last fall, she reached out to her friends, including Baril.

They were matched with a family of eight, which Tran-Davies sees as especially poignant, because it includes a mother and her five children.

Family Photo

The Tran family made a point of visiting their sponsor families during Christmas every year. (Provided/Nhung Tran-Davies)

"It is quite similar to our situation," she says. "I really do look forward to that moment and to see their faces as they come through the doors and to know that they are finally safe."

She was told it could cost up to $40,000 to privately sponsor the family for the first year, and while the federal government provides some financial support, her group collected donations.

The family they are sponsoring was living in Lebanon. There was a lot of uncertainty around when they would come to Edmonton, so the group began renting out a townhouse in December. They even moved in furniture to ensure they would be ready for them. 

It wasn't until this month that the Syrian family finally walked through the arrivals gate at the airport. When they did, Tran-Davies, Baril and others were there, carrying welcome signs and bearing gifts.

Tran-Davies knelt down to hand the youngest, a five-year-old girl named Alma, a brand new doll.

"Thirty-seven years ago somebody gave me a doll," she says. "This one is Alma's."

Nhung Tran-Davies gives a doll

When the sponsored family finally arrived, Tran-Davies gave a new doll to the youngest child, this five-year-old girl. The same gift was bestowed upon her more than three decades ago. (Terry Reith/CBC)