Manitoba·Point of View

Grateful Manitoba doctor thanks Canada, gives aid to Vietnam

When I was just five, in the middle of the night, my parents helped me escape from Vietnam —​ without them.

Former Vietnamese refugee recalls horrific escape to a better life: 'Thank you, thank you Canada'

Winnipegger and former Vietnamese refugee Dr. Chau Pham (second from left) works in Vietnam with her non-profit medical team Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam. (Submitted by Chau Pham)

March 2019 is the 40th anniversary of Canada's private sponsorship program. 

When the Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago, Canada opened its doors to thousands of people who were fleeing the communist regime. 

Vietnamese refugees risked their lives on overcrowded boats to flee. 

It became the largest and most ambitious refugee resettlement effort in Canada's history. 

In 1983, Dr. Chau Pham was one of those refugees. Here now is her story — and how she grew up to give back to both Canada, her adoptive home, and to Vietnam.

When I was just five, in the middle of the night, my parents helped me escape from Vietnam — without them.

That's because they wanted a better life for me than the one I'd have in my war-torn home country. It was a decision that changed the course of my life.

After my escape, I survived nine horrific days on the South China Sea, to land in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Then, while at the refugee camp, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis and subsequently denied entry to Canada. Each day as I went to take my medication at the Red Cross station in the camp, I began to see clearly that the doctor treating my TB was holding all the keys to my future. He had the power to cure my contagious disease, to end my ostracism by everyone in the camp,and to grant me the opportunity for entry to Canada. 

As a result, I made two very important decisions in my seven-year-old mind:

First, I would strive to become a doctor helping to improve others' lives, just as the doctor in the camp had changed mine. 

Second, I would never forget that it was the people of Canada who first offered me a new home in their wonderful country with good health care, education and even a new mom, whom I met the day I arrived. 

My adopted mom not only opened her heart and world to me, but she showed me the meaning of selfless and unconditional love- Dr. Chau Pham

I realize now that children are not just born from a woman's womb but also from a loving heart. My adopted mom not only opened her heart and world to me, but she showed me the meaning of selfless and unconditional love when she made the unimaginable decision to sponsor my family and reunite me with my birth parents and brothers.

Growing up with my adopted mom and my biological family gave new meaning to the phrase "modern family unit." 

In making the full circle of my life, I returned to Vietnam in 1993 at age 15, with both my biological and adopted moms, to see the country of my birth. I could to relate to the many underprivileged children who could easily have been me and who desperately needed the same opportunities I had.

In keeping with this, our charity, Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam Inc., was born in 1995. Our goals are clear: to offer support for impoverished families, to improve health care, to provide bicycles for students to travel the often long distances to school, and to respond to natural disasters and other situations.

It's difficult for children to dream … when they don't know if they'll reach adulthood- Dr. Chau Pham

Most people in Vietnam experience incredible shortages of everything. It's difficult for children to dream about what they want to be when they grow up when they don't know if they'll be healthy enough to reach adulthood. 

In the mission I am currently wrapping up, our team of Canadian specialists share our vision and have generously given their personal time and paid for their own expenses to join us, along with approximately 150 Vietnamese physicians. 

Our Canadian team also donated the majority of the medical equipment they brought to the hospital, so local physicians could sustain their learning and education. At the same time, our team presented 100 students in Vietnam with new bicycles so they can get to school. As well, the team presented six months of financial support to another 100 families.

I am a product of generosities of others … from a malnourished and sick refugee child to the woman that I am today- Dr. Chau Pham

I am a product of the accumulated generosities of others who helped me along the way from a malnourished and sick refugee child to the woman that I am today. 

Now as a blessed Mom to three loving boys, I hope my life example will encourage our sons and other young people to pursue their own unique dreams. 

To our fellow Canadians, on a personal note, thank you for welcoming me to Canada and for all the opportunities you've provided for me.

I would not be here today without my parents' sacrifice to help me flee Vietnam, without the opportunities provided by my Canadian mom, without the daily support and unconditional love of my husband, my family, my medical colleagues, my friends and the many Manitobans who support our charity's work in Vietnam as donors, fundraisers, family sponsors, mission team players and more. 

We know that no work could ever proceed without the tremendous support offered by generous individuals and organizations in Manitoba and Canada. We could not have done it without you. 

In service, we stand together.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Read more opinion pieces published by CBC Manitoba.


Dr. Chau Pham is a Winnipeg-based emergency physician who founded Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam. She and her husband, along with a volunteer medical team, recently conducted a medical learning symposium at the An Giang Provincial Hospital in Long Xuyen, Vietnam.