SNOHOMISH – Four decades ago, members of St. Michael Parish helped the Pham family — refugees who escaped Vietnam by boat and were rescued by the U.S. Navy — get settled in their new home here.
Nhi Pham, a Mukilteo dentist who has volunteered in refugee camps, recently shared her family’s migration story with a gathering at St. Michael’s. It was one of many stories told at an event organized by Teresa Kuntz, a Catholic Relief Services parish ambassador.
“I wanted to do this because I had the feeling that a lot of people had not heard the stories of refugees and immigrants,” Kuntz said. “Because of that, maybe they don’t have empathy for the situation, or [they have] a fear of them, because they had not heard their stories.”
Kuntz said she was inspired by Share the Journey, Pope Francis’ campaign to raise awareness of the global migration crisis. The campaign is cosponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRS, Catholics Charities USA and Caritas Internationalis.
“Pope Francis has encouraged us to enter into dialogue with refugees, so we can learn more about their experience,” said Deacon Gene Vanderzanden of St. Michael’s. The parish’s event helped participants “have a better understanding of how our helping refugees helps fulfill Christ’s commandment that we love one another,” he said.
‘Families helping families’
Attendees included parishioner Catherine Parks, who said her parents, Lawrence and Dorothy Rowe, were among the St. Michael’s families who helped the Pham family find a place to live and welcomed them into the parish community.
Parks, who was in her 20s then and teaching kindergarten, remembers seeing the Phams at church and having potlucks at each other’s homes. “They got introduced to our food, and we got introduced to theirs,” she said.
“Growing up, I loved church potlucks,” Nhi Pham said. “They’re all about fellowship and community and celebrating the most precious gifts we have to share.”
Parks also recalled Nhi Pham’s first day in her kindergarten class. She “came and stood beside me, not saying a word, and that was OK,” Parks said.
Pham recalled how Bob and Anne Oman (former parishioners who attended the event) donated a blue Chevy Nova so her parents could take ESL classes at the local college. The Omans, godparents to Pham’s younger brother Peter, surprised the family one year by leaving a Christmas tree on their porch.
“We thrived because it was community-based support through faith,” said Pham, who attends St. John Mission in Mukilteo. “It was families helping families. That they donated out of love meant so much to us.”
Nhi Pham, third from left, gathered with her parents, Elizabeth Pham and Hap Pham, and other family members at St. Michael Parish in Snohomish. As part of a Share the Journey event, Nhi Pham related the story of her family’s journey from Vietnam to Washington state in 1975. Photo: Courtesy Nhi Pham
‘Your blessing can multiply’
In addition to the live storytelling, members of St. Michael’s ESL program compiled a booklet of their immigration stories for the event.
Parishioner Patricia Franklin-Therrell, who has coordinated the ESL program at St. Michael’s for 12 years, said she remembers when the parish began seeing a large influx of Spanish-speaking parishioners more than a decade ago.
“I could see it was difficult for both [old and new parishioners] to embrace each other,” Franklin-Therrell said. “Events like this draw us closer together and make us more aware [and] more enlightened.”
Kuntz credits much of the day’s success to Pham. “She so inspired me when I heard about her work with refugees,” Kuntz said. “I thought, ‘She needs to be heard.’”
In addition to running her dental practice in Mukilteo, Pham volunteers with Medical Relief International, a Renton-based nonprofit. She has traveled to Haiti, Central America, Tanzania and Lesvos, Greece, where she cared for Afghan and Syrian refugees. Locally, she also volunteers with Medical Teams International, a faith-based organization headquartered in Oregon, serving on a mobile dental van throughout Washington state.
Pham said it’s a way to express her faith and pay forward the generosity her family experienced when they arrived in the U.S.
“Your investment in another human being may be the seed of change for many,” Pham said. “Your blessing can multiply into multiple blessings.”