The Story of Trung Le
We know Trung Le as a Program Supervisor in the Danbury Office. What few understand is that at 16 years of age, he escaped Vietnam. Taking a boat with 73 other people across the South China Sea. He went four days and four nights without food while drinking water from a bucket used for boat fuel.
His story is one of resilience and strength. Trung uses his life story in the everyday work he does with the Department and to improve the lives of others.
Trung was born during the Vietnam War, living most of his life with his grandmother and four younger sisters. After the United States military withdrew from the country, the North Vietnamese took over South Vietnam putting Trung's family at-risk given his parents worked for the United States government.
As a result, his father was placed into a concentration camp. Trung, a little boy at aged 9, would travel by bus over a two-day period to visit his father in prison. He would bring his father food, sugar and salt so he could survive his conditions. For three years, it was Trung, sleeping in bus stations and carrying heavy groceries to support his father.
As an adolescent, Trung's family made the decision that it was best for him to leave the country. Given he was the only boy, this would lead to him safely continuing the family's legacy. On 12 occasions, Trung attempted to leave Vietnam. When spotted by the military, he would be chased into the jungle, shot at, and had to run barefoot over sharp thorns to avoid being captured. Twice he was caught and was forced to spend three days and then an entire month in prison.
On the 13th try, Trung successfully boarded a boat to Malaysia and arrived days later. He then spent over a year in the Pulau Bidong refugee camp after being classified as a "boat person."
Trung still has his identification card from that refugee camp - showing the young face of a brave young man. Given his unaccompanied minor status, Trung was eventually placed in Syracuse New York with a "foster family" when he was 18 years of age.
His first placement was not a good match and Trung left. Trung speaks openly of being in "survival mode" as he was in a new country, without his family and no friends. "Sometimes you don't realize the strength you have until you are dealing with a crisis," Trung stated.
Trung moved into his own apartment, went to school full-time, was on the soccer team and worked at Ames Department store as a stock boy. At the time, Trung spoke broken English yet learned the language and finished high school in three years.
While at Ames, he met Theresa Fraser who assisted him with speaking, taught him how to respond to customers, they discussed school and overall life issues. "She was like a mother to me," Trung stated. An offer was made to have Trung live with her family - Trung "found home." Kinship.
Trung had offers from other families who understood his story. He realized the Frasers were the best family for him. "They respected me," Trung stated. "They accepted me the way I was. They were my safety net and security." They took him in without any reimbursement or financial incentives.
"They are my family," according to Trung. "They are my parents."
Jack Fraser quickly became Trung's father figure. "Jack is wonderful and a father everyone would wish to have," Trung emphatically stated. He tells the story of Jack driving 6-8 hours from one end of New York to the other to pick him up for college breaks and drive him home.
For the past 27 years, Trung has worked for the Department of Children and Families. He imparts what he has learned on his journey to his staff with the goal to assist them in looking holistically at families. He relates his experiences to those children and families we serve. "There primary concern is how to survive. How to eat today," according to Trung. "We must remember that."
Especially with undocumented persons, Trung understands their focus is on survival and not necessary engaging in services until they know their core needs are going to be met.
As an adolescent, Trung described his thoughts of needing to be "three steps ahead" and thinking through what has to occur next so he was taken care of - planning for survival. He imparts this knowledge to his adolescent social workers, using the example of youth needing to know where they will live when school ends, when they will receive a stipend and getting out in front of questions they may have.
Just like the Frasers empowered him, Trung wants his employees to allow our youth to say, "This is where I want to be."
In 2005, Trung went back to Vietnam for the first time. He went unannounced. That brave 16-year-old who left was now a grown man - a husband, father, friend and inspiration.
Although Theresa has died, Jack remains a vital part of Trungs' life. They vacation at least once each year and maintain phone contact. A true example of permanency.
What would Trung's overall message be about his life that he wants others to know? "Sometimes you don't realize the strength you have until you are dealing with a crisis."