By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
As Saigon fell during the end of the Vietnam War, the chaos of people trying to leave the country tore families apart, as most sought to escape prior to the communist takeover. With one child on her back, another clutching onto her shirttails, and two more in each arm, Cuc Vu’s mother had to make a decision, as she hurried to the gates of Tan Son Nhat airport, where they sought to flee the country. Turn back and find her husband who they lost in the turmoil, or continue on, ensuring her children a chance out of Vietnam.
She chose to leave. They put it to faith that the family would reunite. They never saw their father again. According to Vu, the last they heard was that her father had attempted to leave the country by a boat. Vu assumes that he may have drowned, as did many people that could not leave through the help of the United States.
“It’s stuff worthy of novels,” stated Vu. As the newly appointed director of Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs with the City of Seattle, she will start to write a new chapter of a career dedicated to public service.
Mayor Ed Murray appointed Vu director on July 15th. She will lead the effort on behalf of the city in immigrant integration and engagement of immigrants and refugees in all facets.
Prior to her appointment by Murray, Vu worked as chief diversity officer at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington D.C. She has extensive experience on immigrant and refugee issues as an advocate, issue organizer, and nonprofit founder and executive. Also, as someone who had to navigate the process when her family first came to the United States, she has personal experience. Vu recalls serving as an interpreter for her mother, as the family needed to apply for government programs.
Vu recalls that after they left Vietnam, they decided to relocate to Washington state. An uncle, who was living in Texas at the time, told the family that they should move there. “Washington was a much friendlier state for immigrants,” Vu recounts of her uncle’s advice. Thus, Vu and her family settled in Olympia. Her family was matched with an American family, Jean and Glenn Wohlers, through the Catholic Church they attended.
Vu recalls her first words of English were learned in the backseat of the Wohlers’ Chevy Nova. She glowingly recalls playing “green light, yellow light, red light” with the Wohlers.
While her family received help in acclimating to American culture from the Wohlers, it was her mother that supported the four kids working at a Chinese restaurant earning just minimum wage at $3.75 per hour. Vu learned the qualities of loyalty and hard work from her mother. Her mother worked for more than 20 years at the same restaurant.
Vu attended Tumwater High School, where she played soccer and was good enough to play collegiately at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif.
“Pomona chose me,” Vu recalled of her unconventional choice to leave her family to attend school. Many of her friends decided to stay close to home for college and go to the University of Washington or another school in the area. Vu had narrowed her college choices to Pomona and Whitman College in Eastern Washington. She received offers to play soccer at both schools. Vu saw Pomona, located in Southern California, as the “clear choice.”
Going to college fulfilled a lifelong dream of Vu’s father, who wanted his children to attend. Vu’s father was a tailor and her mother had only a second-grade education and the parents wished better for their children.
After graduating from Pomona, Vu moved even farther away from her Olympia home, as she decided to attend Columbia University in New York to pursue a master’s in public administration. “The lure of the city and sense of adventure,” recalls Vu of some of the reasons why she decided to attend graduate school in New York. Vu graduated as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
At an early age, Vu decided that she would dedicate her life to work on policy. “I read an article about this kid who collected cans of food to feed the homeless,” retold Vu of the point when she realized that she wanted to serve the public and address community needs.
While most of her career has been spent on the East Coast, Vu decided to head back to Washington state for family reasons. “A baby does wonders for your life,” said Vu of the recent addition to her family. Vu’s wife graduated from the University of Washington and is originally from Hawaii. The two decided that it would be easiest that they live closer to family on the West Coast. Vu is also an active member of the LGBT community.
Vu will implement Mayor Murray’s Five-Point Action Plan, which includes 1) strengthening Seattle’s language access policies and protocols; 2) expanding access to ESL programs; 3) support for immigrant-owned small businesses; 4) citizenship corners and naturalization campaign; and 5) community safety.
In her new role, through the Five-Point Action Plan, Vu seeks to improve on statistics which reflect that immigrants and refugees have higher unemployment, lower education rates, and are more susceptible to living in poverty. “The city needs to step in and provide answers to address the needs,” said Vu. (end)
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.