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Priest fled communism, not his country

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Father Tran returns to Vietnam on medical missions
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo Caption: Fr. Tien Tran (BCC File Photo)

A priest who fled Vietnam as a refugee is now working hard to serve the poor and ill in the country he left behind.

Father Tien Tran was 17 years old when he jumped onto a small boat with his aunt and 55 other souls in an attempt to escape communist rule in his homeland.

“In 1975, the communists took over the whole country,” said Father Tran, now the pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish in Surrey. “After that, life was like hell.”


Living hell

Father Tran was a 13-year-old with one year of minor seminary behind him and hopes of becoming a priest when communists swept in and snatched up his school.

“They took everything belonging to the Church. They took the hospitals run by the church, the schools, the seminaries, and all the land. They took some churches.”

Daily Mass was allowed, but Catholics who wanted to hold processions or other special events had to apply for permission.

“We were very fearful of the police officers. When we saw them, we would freeze. We were not allowed to gather five people. No gathering. No trusting anyone.”

The communists’ aim was to make everyone equal, Father Tran said. He believes they succeeded in making everyone equally poor.

“The conditions were terrible. They changed the currency three times. If you are a millionaire, a billionaire, the next day you become like everyone else. You are only allowed to have the new money. The rest is garbage.”

Depreciating the value of their money was devastating for Father Tran’s parents and their 10 children. Their rice and beans were taken away and some days the large family was trying to manage on a small family’s income and literally starving.

“It was really living hell, and I wanted to escape.”


Escape by sea

Fleeing the country was dangerous, difficult, and cost a fortune. The young Tran’s parents scraped together their savings and managed to pay half of his one-way ticket out of the country. His grandmother scrounged up the other half.

In 1980, the opportunity arose. He and one of his aunts left the rest of the family behind. They crowded onto a small boat full of refugees and spent the next five days on the sea hoping they wouldn’t run into any trouble on their way to Indonesia.

Surprisingly, they didn’t. Father Tran considers himself lucky.

“I was successful. It only took one try,” he said. “Of all the people who escaped from Vietnam, only half made it. The other half were killed in prison, killed on the ocean, (victims of) pirates, lost, or captured by the communists.”

Other Vietnamese priests in B.C., including Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops and Father Joseph Le of St. Jude’s Parish, had a harder time of it.

Bishop Nguyen fled Vietnam when word got out about the underground seminary he was attending. He tried to escape by boat, but his first attempt was thwarted by a severe storm and the boat’s passengers were captured and thrown in prison. He made it out on the second try.

Father Le tried to flee about 10 times and was caught and put into Vietnamese labour camps several times before he managed to get out.

“I was lucky to escape only one time,” said Father Tran. He didn’t know he would be returning to his homeland for a vital mission 15 years later.


Becoming Canadian

He and his aunt landed in a refugee camp in Indonesia and waited for paperwork from family members in California. After six months without the documents, they accepted an offer to fly to Canada instead.

Tien Tran was not optimistic about his future; refugees at the Indonesian camp told him Canada was a frozen country that only received six months of daylight and that his ears or nose could break off if he went outdoors without covering them. They boarded a plane to Montreal in November 1980.

“Looking down from the airplane, it was all white! All the stories seemed to be right about Canada.”

After three weeks and more paperwork in the snow-covered east, he and his aunt were flown to Vancouver. “There, we saw light and life! That was more like it.”

Tran turned 18 on the west coast and spent the next three years trying to fit in while his dream of becoming a priest all but faded away.

“I got lost in the sense that I didn’t know what to do except hanging out with my peers,” he said. “We went to school but did not really study. Like any typical teenager of the early 80s, I tried to mingle, to fit in a new culture, new country. It wasn’t easy at all.”


Conversion of heart

Then, he experienced what he now describes as a conversion.

“After about three years trying to adapt to a new country, with ups and downs and being troublemakers and so on, I finally questioned my purpose in life. Why did I come to Canada? Why did my parents send me here?”

The questions left him feeling unsettled. As the teen looked for answers, he went to Mass and found his priestly aspirations rising up in his heart again.

He heard about the Seminary of Christ the King and visited in 1983. He entered one year later, studied there for four years, then travelled east to St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., for another four years of study.

Father Tran was ordained a deacon in 1992 and a priest May 22, 1993. He said he’s not sure he could have fulfilled that dream back in Vietnam.


Medical mission

One year after his ordination, Father Tran met an ophthalmologist who travelled to poor countries on medical missions. “Jokingly, I asked him: why not Vietnam?”

Doctor David Neima replied: “Why not?”

When Father Tran realized Neima was serious, they set up a lunch meeting with another doctor, Hugh Parsons, to talk about Vietnam. Then, they spent two weeks there to see the conditions for themselves.

While the men visited one hospital, a 16-year-old girl was rushed in with broken legs after a serious car accident. The medical staff were underequipped; it was all they could do to stop the bleeding and tell her family to rent a minivan and drive her to a bigger hospital in the city.

The trio returned to Vancouver and invited 70 friends – doctors, nurses, and others – to a restaurant to officially launch their new project. They raised $17,000 in one day.

Medical Aid for Vietnam was born. Fifteen volunteers, including doctors, translators, and aides, made the first two-week mission trip in 1995.

It was the second time Father Tran had returned to the country he fled at age 17; the first was in 1994, to celebrate his ordination with his family.


Heart surgery

The medical team began with cataract surgeries and general check-ups. Then, 13 years ago, they started a program to help children get life-saving heart surgeries.

Now, a team of volunteers travels to Vietnam at least once a year. They pay their own travel costs, go for two weeks at a time, visit remote villages, and work with local nuns or priests to identify the needs of the people in each area.

“When we examine people for the two weeks we are there, we see what kind of medication they need and give it to them,” said Father Tran.

“We see what kind of surgeries they need and we make sure they will be admitted to hospital later with the help of the sisters and priests. We give money to the sisters and priests to make sure the patients will be taken care of. We pay for all the operations.”

Father Tran said the generosity of donors is extraordinary; every year but one since Medical Aid for Vietnam’s inception, the group has raised more funds than the previous year.

They raised $265,000 in 2016 in Vancouver alone, with $170,000 earmarked for poor Vietnamese children who need heart surgery. People in other parts of Canada and around the world also send cheques and volunteers on the mission.

Father Tran receives three weeks of vacation time each year. He uses one to visit his family and the other two for the love of the poor in his homeland.

“It is very rewarding and meaningful. That’s why I have been doing it for the last 22 years, using my holidays to do it, until I can’t do it again.” q



Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 June 2017 11:10  

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