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Greywolf's 'Mr. Young,' Sequim teacher collaborate on book

In a parallel world - one world without governments or war - the young Vietnamese man in the warm, rushing river might have been trying a new swim stroke or learning how to tread water in the current.

As it was, on one particular rainy evening some 32 years ago, Nguyen Tuat Van found himself floating halfway across the Mekong River using plastic jugs as makeshift floats, drifting farther away from the home he knew, searching for freedom.

In between the muddy banks of Laos - his home and Thailand - his salvation - were Chinese soldiers on boats, armed with guns.

"I got a lot of lucky breaks," says Nguyen, some three decades later. "I say, 'God helped me.'"

From communist camps in Laos to that daring escape on the Mekong, to a refugee camp in Thailand and a fortuitous break that took him to the United States - plus a love story to go along with it - Nguyen's story is one a close friend likens to a good, old-fashioned American success story.

Karen Sisk, a local teacher and former co-worker with Nguyen at Greywolf Elementary School, hopes she can help students understand the power of Nguyen's story with a new book.

Entitled "Greywolf Elementary's 'Mr. Young': How He Came to America," the book details the Nguyen family's journey from Vietnam to Laos and on to Thailand, both moves coming to avoid China's communist invasions, and then on to the United States, to pursue what Nguyen calls "big freedom."

Sisk said she wrote the book specifically for Greywolf students, many of whom she says are curious about how the seemingly ever-smiling custodian at their school they call "Mr. Young" - a shortened version of Nguyen, his family name - got to be 7,000 miles from his home.

"I always had this preconceived notion of people who came from Laos (that they had money to come)." Sisk says. "His singleness of purpose at such a young age, being so young, taking on the responsibilities of his family ... it's the classic American dream."

Nguyen's family is originally from Vietnam but they moved west to French-controlled Laos in the 1950s to raise the children, in part to avoid heavy influence from Chinese communists in Vietnam. Nguyen's father, a soldier, died when the boy was just 5 and his brother and sisters went to work to help their mother, Chinh Vu, a cook by trade.

The young boy grew into a man, learning Laotian and French in school and sometimes skipping his extra English lessons to play with friends. He also joined the Laotian Boy Scouts.

But when he was close to finishing his high school days, the Chinese invaded Laos. Nguyen and some of his friends, who were enamored by American rock n' roll and other aspects of Westernized culture, ran into trouble. They were sent to a special labor camp near the Vietnam border where, as Sisk describes in the book, Nguyen and others' "brains would be cleared of everything 'Western' or American.'"

"You'd have to tell them everything," Nguyen says of his Chinese captors, or face punishment. Sometimes his campmates were never heard from again.

"A lot of people lost everything," he says.

After three months of labor, he and friends got a two-week break where they planned an escape.

Not a particularly able swimmer, Nguyen jury-rigged a flotation device: plastic jugs filled with air and capped tight. One rainy night, with Chinese patrol boats in the water, Nguyen recalls that he slipped into the Mekong River and aimed for the lights of an Thai airport he could see across the way.

Nguyen did slip by the patrols and eventually found a refugee camp across the river. "At that time I just thought, 'Get out,'" Nguyen says. "I promised my mom. I said, 'I have to go (but) I promise I'll get you to Thailand.'"

Soon after, he sent for his mother, asking her in a letter to leave everything behind and come to the refugee camp across the river.

But Thailand wasn't entirely safe either, Nguyen explains. People were shipped back to Laos if caught outside the refugee camps.

Nguyen had a number of reasons to stay in Thailand; one of those was a young woman named Hong Ha, once a family friend in Laos. The two fell in love and became engaged. Hong Ha was lucky enough to find a way out of Thailand and to the United States, but that meant the two would be separated. On the day she left, Nguyen risked his safety by escorting Hong Ha to Bangkok for her U.S.-bound flight.

"I'm thinking (that) this is the last time I'll see her," Nguyen says.

In 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter pushed for new legislation that would establish a new admissions policy for refugees. Dubbed the Refugee Act of 1980, it was Nguyen's ticket to the U.S. and his fiancée, just nine months after her departure.

"I dreamed really big," Nguyen says.

That dream came true thanks to Carter's new policy and sponsors from Sequim Bible Church. Nguyen moved to Sequim with his mother, Chinh Vu, brother Van and sister Thu.

Eventually Nguyen and Hong Ha reunited. They married in 1982, became American citizens in 1985 and are raising four daughters - Julie (23), Rosa (21), Stephanie (15) and Tina (12).

Nugyen took work with the Sequim School District, working full time at the old Sequim Middle School in 1992 and, for the last half-dozen years at

Sequim's Greywolf Elementary as custodian.

"They keep asking me, 'When will you tell your story?'" Nguyen says.

So Sisk put his story together. She targeted a fourth-grade reading level so that the upper elementary grade-level students (fourth and fifth) can read the story themselves, or teachers in the earlier grades can read it aloud to their students.

The goal, Sisk says, is trying to answer a specific question: What is it that people are trying to have that kids at Greywolf already have? It's the same thing that Nguyen himself sought all those years ago, staring across the pitch-black water of the Mekong ... the same thing that took him and his family, and thousands of Laotians halfway around the world ... the same thing that makes Greywolf's "Mr. Young" break into an unbreakable smile: the joy of freedom.

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