The Daily Illini

Former refugee offers support in CU

Anh+Ha+Ho%2C+director+of+client+services+for+the+East+Central+Illinois+Refugee+Mutual+Assistance+Center%2C+gets+involved+during+the+children%E2%80%99s+program+at+St.+Matthew+Lutheran+Church+in+Urbana+on+Saturday.+Ha+Ho+reflects+on+her+experiences+as+a+refugee+and+the+journey+to+helping+other+refugees+in+Champaign-Urbana.
Anh Ha Ho, director of client services for the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, gets involved during the children’s program at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana on Saturday. Ha Ho reflects on her experiences as a refugee and the journey to helping other refugees in Champaign-Urbana.

Anh Ha Ho, director of client services for the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, gets involved during the children’s program at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana on Saturday. Ha Ho reflects on her experiences as a refugee and the journey to helping other refugees in Champaign-Urbana.

Anh Ha Ho, director of client services for the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, gets involved during the children’s program at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana on Saturday. Ha Ho reflects on her experiences as a refugee and the journey to helping other refugees in Champaign-Urbana.

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Champaign-Urbana, 302 S. Birch St. in Urbana, harbors the offices of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, casually known as the Refugee Center.

In this cubbyhole, you will also find Anh Ha Ho, or as she is affectionately known around the office, the “Mother Teresa of Champaign-Urbana.”

Ha Ho, 70, is a former refugee from Vietnam who has lived through just about every different type of immigrant status an individual can experience.

Since she has traversed and navigated the immigration system several times for herself — Ha Ho remembers filing papers at the immigration offices in France as a child — she wanted to work toward helping others find their own path, from being refugees to self-sufficient individuals. There was a time when she worked as a refugee at the Refugee Center.

In the late 1980s when she began volunteering for the Refugee Center, she was mainly an interpreter for Vietnamese and French to English. Today, as director of client services, she does a lot more, and she also translates German and Spanish.

“An opportunity knocked on the door, and I got the chance to prove myself,” she said. “I could share what I knew; share my experiences, share my knowledge with (refugees). I knew what agency to go to, what papers to ask for.”

In 1949 at 19 months old, Ha Ho had to leave her home in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, to move to Paris with her parents and five siblings. Her father, Co Huy Pham, had received an academic scholarship and was urged by his family to distance himself from his anti-communist political showings.

She lived as a permanent resident in France for 16 years. In the summer of 1965, as the political climate ameliorated economic conditions in Vietnam, Ha Ho returned to her native country for the first time.

“I had integrated myself in France; my way of thinking was very French. But I always knew that I was different because I looked Asian,” Ha Ho said. “But when I came back (to Vietnam), it was very hard. I felt like a refugee in my own country.”

It was the restrictive societal pressure, according to her, that negatively affected her experience upon returning home. Compared to the open and accepting aura of her community in France, Vietnamese culture was very orthodox to her.

Ha Ho experienced more social strain when her father decided to run for president on an anti-communist platform.

“I was in the shoes of Chelsea Clinton,” she said. “We were campaigning, organizing speeches and so on.”

While Huy Pham lost the elections in 1967, he did not censor his nationalist rhetoric while leading the Thang (translates to ‘Win’) newspaper.

After the Vietnam War in 1976, he was arrested and sent to a re-education camp, operated by the communist government of Vietnam, to be politically indoctrinated for three years.

During this time, Ha Ho attempted to flee the country by boat many times but could not find a passage out for herself, her husband and two children.

In 1983, Ha Ho’s brother — Hai Huy Pham, a retired medical specialist — provided sponsorship for them to immigrate to Montreal.

While she was settled there for two years, she was separated from her husband, Dang Dac Ho, for one year when, in 1984, he left for a medical training program in Oklahoma. She tried to make visa arrangements several times but to no avail.

“It was a very hard period,” Ha Ho said.

Eventually, the couple reunited after her husband accepted a medical residency at the University and was granted a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant exchange visa, and she was eligible to be approved for a J-2 visa.

After moving to Champaign-Urbana in the summer of 1985, Ha Ho never left — even when times got tough.

Two years later, Dac Ho was offered a permanent job with the University.  He enlisted the assistance of a lawyer to navigate the immigration process. That was a mistake, Ha Ho said.

“The lawyer turned out not to be so competent,” she said. “What she advised us to do should not have been done. And we lost our permanent residence status from Canada. We were in no man’s land.”

Ha Ho and her family had no choice but to apply for political asylum. They lived as refugees in limbo for two months before receiving a permanent resident status.

That was followed by a long, laborious path to attaining American citizenship in 2000 — “a year to remember” for more reasons than one — according to Ha Ho.

“My first daughter got married, our garden was featured in the ‘Garden Walk’ and I became an American citizen,” she said, with a grin that stretched from ear-to-ear.  

In January 2019, Ha Ho will complete 28 years at the Refugee Center. In addition to rendering her services as an interpreter, she manages a range of day-to-day tasks, from filling out applications, accompanying clients to court and even helping them lower their rents and electric bills.

“We are their guiding voice,” Ha Ho said. “They received a stack of paper, and they have no clue of knowing what it is. So it’s our responsibility to explain to them and to lead them step by step.”

Mary Danner, 27, administrative manager, works in close proximity with Ha Ho and feels inspired by her. Danner’s mother was an immigrant from Ireland, and she feels it’s really important to help incoming refugees.

“The way that Ha is with refugees is amazing, I don’t think many people cater to the personal side of helping with refugees,” Danner said.

It amazes Danner how supportive Ha Ho is of refugees, even the ones who are not her clients.

Hezbollah Akmal, 38, Ha Ho’s client, came to Champaign on a special immigrant visa from Afghanistan in October 2017. Fleeing threats from the Taliban and other insurgent groups, Akmal had to start over with his wife, Sosan Durani, and five daughters.

Akmal said he received financial help as well as support with bureaucratic proceedings from Ha Ho.

Ha Ho believes America can help many more individuals like Akmal.

“This country was built by immigrants,” she said.

She added that it’s acceptable to be selective when it comes to granting visas and political asylum; however, the country’s administration needs to help in more ways  because it can.

A few years ago, Champaign was supposed to receive 1,000 Syrian refugees. The entire community reached out to the Refugee Center to provide support and banded together.

“The whole city woke up,” Ha Ho said.

However, before refugees arrived, Executive Order 13769 was instated by President Trump. Only one refugee from Syria arrived, a 79-year-old woman. To Ha Ho, that is simply unacceptable.

“(Refugees) suffer so much; we need to empathize with them. But they contribute in their own ways when given a chance because they are just looking for a better life,” Ha Ho said.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment
The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871