When Saigon fell in 1975, sheer grit carried Thu Le Pham across the world. She fled via helicopter, aircraft carriers and warships. She once cooked for three U.S. generals and spent a decade fighting to return to her career as an educator, which eventually led Pham to teaching French in Hanover County Public Schools for more than 20 years before retiring.
But she’s learning Spanish, too, as a volunteer at Bon Secours Care-a-Van, which caters to a predominantly Latino patient population.
“I know un poquito!” she said, grinning. “I like to share things because our country needs to be open to more — learning other languages. And that’s what will get us open. I think it’s a privilege that we can do that.”
Inside North Courthouse Library in Chesterfield County on Monday night, Pham was among the four panelists who reflected on their varying immigration journeys to Virginia.
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The event was organized by Chesterfield’s Department of Citizen Information and Resources and the Asian American Society of Central Virginia to celebrate June being Immigrant Heritage Month.
Former Gov. Ralph Northam issued the proclamation last year to illustrate how the state was “dedicated to creating a Virginia that is accepting, welcoming and inclusive of all who chose to call our Commonwealth home.”
At least 1 in 8 Virginians are immigrants, and over 180 different languages are spoken statewide, according to figures compiled by the state’s Department of Social Services. More than a third are from Latin America, nearly 42% are from Asia, and roughly 11% are from Africa.
Of the 1.1 million residents born outside of the U.S., more than half are citizens.
But despite Chesterfield having one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the state and Henrico County bolstering a rising refugee population, people’s immigration stories have often been relegated to the shadows.
That was the motivation behind Marj Mohta speaking on Monday night and appearing alongside the other panelists in “Portraits of Immigrant Voices” — a book started by Colombia-born artist Alfonso Pérez and Richmond-based writer Joe Kutchera as a series to show the people behind the numbers.
“I want to be a voice that can be heard,” she said. “I want to be a face that can be seen.”
Each of the 24 portraits, accompanied by the individual’s stories, wraps each person in the colors representing their country’s flag. “HERE WE SPEAK” is written next to their faces with the language they speak.
Mohta’s portrait says “Tagalog” with “Philippines” sketched by her shoulder. Her story begins with a nursing shortage bringing her to Florida in 1982, long before the pandemic made the health care worker shortage even worse, she said.
She’s now lived longer in the U.S. than she has where she was born and has been a critical care nurse for almost 40 years.
“We are all the same even though we are different. We have a common goal, and that is to better ourselves, better our situation for our family, improve your situations in life,” Mohta said. “It’s a two-way street. I learn from you, and they learn from me, too.”
In an interview in 2020, Pérez said the series came at a time when the presidency was marked by a stinging rhetoric against immigration. The portraits were a chance for immigrants to share their truth — to dispel lies and show that they were not powerless.
On Tuesday night, he shared how it wasn’t until two to three years after he immigrated to the U.S. in 2015 that he “understood the full complexity of what it means to be an immigrant here in Virginia.”
“I was feeling the narrative around immigration being problematic and just talking in terms of ‘There’s a problem at the border, and there’s a problem with the paperwork,’” Pérez continued. “Then at the same time, there are people here living a different experience ... that was good. Positive. But nobody was talking about that.”
But Khushnood Nabizada, a panelist from Afghanistan who arrived in Richmond six months ago, acknowledged that it’s the bad that reminds him of why the “good” means so much.
“Afghanistan has been in war for the last 43 years now ... and all of the achievements, they’re gone,” he said. “Immigration is not a fantasy. It’s just a struggle to escape death. It is the last option.”
Nabizada reminded the crowd of almost 20 people, which included Chesterfield supervisors Chris Winslow and Jim Holland and Karla Ramos — the head of Richmond’s Office for Immigrant and Refugee Engagement who helped Pérez and Kutchera find locals for the series — that immigration is not only the traveling of a body.
It’s the traveling of a person’s soul. Culture. Livelihood.
That’s why Ping Chu, another panelist who was born in China and translates academic books from English to Mandarin for fun to learn more about U.S. history, said not letting immigrant stories disappear is critical to understanding one another.
For Chi-Nam Pham, Pham’s son who has lived in Chesterfield for more than 40 years and pushed Pham to join the series, keeping these stories alive is how those who have never met his mother will learn of how incredible she is.
And for people who like him — a proud son of immigrants — he said it’s a chance to finally be seen.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inadvertently omitted a portion of a quote by Khushnood Nabizada. The correct quote is: “Immigration is not a fantasy. It’s just a struggle to escape death. It is the last option.” The story has been updated.
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