By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When 5-year-old Sabina saw the presents, she said, “Is it all for me?”
She and her mother had just arrived from Ukraine. They had no friends, no family, and had moved into an apartment in Portland, Oregon. But a team of volunteers helped them celebrate Sabina’s birthday.
A special services teacher and her students made a ‘Happy Birthday’ banner and a card and put their pictures in frames. They blew up balloons. They found kids’ sunglasses and a feather boa. And they put everything in bags so Sabina would have presents to open.
But they had no way of getting them to the girl and her mother.
Portland was over a one-hour drive from their school. And the teacher couldn’t get away for that long.
Enter Tina Pham-Semko, 36. Her parents had been refugees from Vietnam. When her grandfather moved to Yakima with her mother and their family, a local family had sponsored them. The family helped her grandfather find work, taught them English, and found them furniture. But what made the journey possible in the first place was—Pham-Semko’s grandfather had been a driver for the U.S. military commander in Vietnam. This allowed him and his family to escape.
For Pham-Semko, you can see in her face that the journey started a long time ago. She and her husband carried the supplies by car from central Oregon back to Portland so Sabina could have a birthday party. Pham-Semko says it was a small thing and asked that we emphasize that it takes a team to make something like this happen.
“We are just small vessels, but we are interconnected,” said Pham-Semko.
The end of a journey
As Pham-Semko talks about the different phases of her life that led up to this two-and-a-half-hour drive, which in itself was simply a minor road trip, her face changes, reflecting sadness, resolution, joy, and even anger. It is as if the whole journey of her family from war-torn and heavily-bombed and ravaged Vietnam to her own life and love in the United States is reflected in the changing hues of emotions in her eyes, cheeks, and smile.
When she talks about her parents’ journey here, arriving in 1975, her face grows long and somber. When she talks about meeting her Ukrainian-born husband in high school in Portland and falling in love, her face grows alternately thoughtful and ecstatic.
“We grew up together. We formed our values together,” she said. “We would say to one another, ‘What do we think about this or that?’”
The first invasion
But when she talks about the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and her husband’s cousin entering the war, her face grows anxious and sad.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives were all in a tiny village in Ukraine.
“They were totally unprepared,” she said. “So they had no supplies.”
Through the Ukrainian Foundation of Oregon, Pham-Semko and her husband joined an effort to gather supplies.
“There were so many things that were needed, I decided to focus on one thing,” she said.
Through social media and getting the word out to friends, Pham-Semko gathered knee pads.
She and her husband made new friends, Nadia and Ariya Trachu, who took the time to go to places like Goodwill and buy whatever knee pads they could find second hand.
“We then delivered them to a friend, Misha Mitkov, and he would spray paint them black,” she said. “Mitkov sadly passed away in 2020.”
The second invasion
Then the invasion happened. And once again, they were gathering supplies. This time, another cousin was going into the war along with his brother. They had been in Germany when Russia invaded again.
The cousin said, “We can’t leave our grandmother and mother alone.” So they went back to fight.
This time, Pham-Semko and her husband gathered trauma kits, first aid supplies, clothing for children, as the war progressed, and even gel packs that runners use.
“Soldiers are out in the field sometimes without anything to eat,” she said.
They saw videos of people in villages making Molotov cocktails.
“We felt so helpless, we thought they were going to die,” she said.
When Russia first invaded, they felt totally unprepared.
“We would call one another in the family crying, talking about what we could do, waiting to see what the U.S. was going to do. Or asking, ‘What is the world going to do?’” said Pham-Semko. “Everyone was very emotional.”
Next on Pham-Semko’s list are supplies for female soldiers.
“Everyone has different needs, and we mustn’t forget that there are mothers, women fighting the war, too.” They will be gathering personal items such as toothpaste, deodorant, and more clothing.
They are also gathering thermal underwear for the winter, and children’s shoes.
“There are children in villages who don’t have any, and winter has already started,” she said.
Grim now is her face as she talks about the harshness of the Ukrainian winter.
Then she shifts into a more focused expression as she describes dropping off supplies as often as possible at a house where a Ukrainian shipping company will pick them up.
“If they go by air, it takes two to three weeks. If by ship, it takes three months,” she said.
Recently, she and her husband have been sending more urgently needed supplies by delivering them to the Ukrainian Foundation, where there is hopefully always someone traveling to Ukraine.
Combat boots are among the most urgently needed.
A mother without means
When Pham-Semko delivered the items to the refugee office so that a caseworker could take them to Sabina and her mother’s apartment the next day, she said she connected with it more as a mother than as the child of immigrants and the wife of an immigrant.
“I know what it’s like for children not to be accepted, and it’s hard enough to be a mother without having the means to take care of your children,” she said.
As for her own family history, Pham-Semko visited Vietnam with her parents once, when she was 14. It was so complicated for her to return to a land she had never seen and to a government and a flag that her family and community don’t recognize.
She talks of how beautiful an island she visited was then—Cat Ba Island—but then corrects herself by saying from her American privileged perspective it was beautiful. But the massive commercialization of the area, and much of the country over the past 20 years, has meant a much higher quality of life economically for the people living there.
Sadness. She suddenly seems much older than her 36 years.
“This is a really lonely time of year for many people. If you can do one small thing, like serve a meal somewhere, it makes it less hard,” she said.
A rock star
After delivering the birthday presents to Sabina—it was over Thanksgiving weekend—she got this email from the caseworker.
“Thank you so much for a Team effort to help this little girl to feel welcomed, special and loved! She was overwhelmed to see all the presents, balloons, cards and gifts! She was jumping and asking: “Is it all for me? Is it all for me?” Her mom had tears in her eyes… She was so thankful to everyone who helped to make this day special for her daughter!
Friends, we cannot help every person in the World to feel special and loved, but for this little child WE DID IT!”
The email closed by saying for confidentiality they could not include a photo. But the caseworker described it.
“Sabina was all decked out in her birthday gear: boa, birthday hat, and some stylish rockstar sunglasses!”
30 million refugees
Next up, Pham-Semko is going to deliver a bed to another refugee family that has just arrived.
“I want to reiterate that this work is not possible alone. That no matter how much I have done and continue to do, I cannot do it without the many supporting community members, friends, and family,” she said.
Then she shifted gears.
“There are 30 million refugees in the world, if each of us just delivered one bed, that would solve many problems,” she said. “And who’s to say we’re not going to become refugees here? Just because we’re in the United States doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. What about nuclear war, or World War III? Then you’d need someone to deliver a bed to you.”
To make a donation to the Ukrainian Foundation, go to: ukrainian.foundation.
Next week (Part Two): How a refugee family from Vietnam, living in Seattle, helped settle a refugee family from Ukraine.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.