Couple Started Indochinese Refugees Foundation, UML Diversity Efforts

Lan and Hai Pho at home Image by K. Webster
Lan and Hai Pho were honored by the university for their work helping Southeast Asian refugees in Lowell.

By Katharine Webster

On April 15, 1975, Lan and Hai Pho and their baby boy caught the last commercial flight out of Saigon before the South Vietnamese capital fell to North Vietnamese forces. They left behind everything except a suitcase full of diapers.

The Phos were U.S.-educated and had U.S. residency, which allowed them to return here.

Their families and friends weren’t so lucky.

“I was so fortunate to get out at that time without any harm to me and my family,” Hai Pho says now.

Their good fortune brought with it a sense of obligation. The Phos brought family members to the U.S., welcomed other Southeast Asian refugees and co-founded the Indochinese Refugees Foundation, which scaled up its services when the U.S. government settled about 100 families from Cambodia and Laos in the Greater Lowell and Lawrence area.

The couple, both now retired from UMass Lowell, also made an indelible impact on generations of students.

In recognition of their contributions to the city and university, the Phos were invited to campus recently for an event in their honor, hosted by UML’s Asian American Center for Excellence and Engagement (AACEE), a student support program.

“Their work to help Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong and Lao refugees in the 1980s is nothing short of remarkable,” Sue Kim, incoming dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, told nearly 100 people at the event.

“We are now an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution with a center that provides wraparound support for our growing Asian American student population,” said Kim, who co-wrote the federal grant establishing AACEE. She is also co-founder and co-director of the university’s Center for Asian American Studies and principal investigator for the Southeast Asian Digital Archive.

“But these things don’t just come out of the blue. Everything that we see today – at the university and community and state levels – is the result of our elders, like the Phos, seeing need outside oneself, working hard, taking risks and being brave.”

Lan and Hai Pho in 1983 Image by James Higgins
Lan and Hai Pho in 1983, when they ran the Indochinese Refugees Association.

Early Education in the U.S.

Hai Pho came to the U.S. in 1954 to attend a Christian Brothers high school in Waltham, Massachusetts, and then went to Boston College, where he earned a B.A. in history.

Lan Pho came to the United States in spring 1960 to study business and home economics at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, after winning a Leadership Scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the South Vietnamese government.  

The two met a couple of months later when Hai, thinking she might be a distant cousin, looked her up while attending a summer program for Vietnamese students near Chicago. They weren’t related, but he was charmed by her and courted her over the next few years.

They were separated by an ocean in 1964, when Lan returned to Vietnam for the two years of service required by her scholarship. She taught at the National School of Commerce, then returned to the U.S. in 1966 with a fellowship from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where she earned an MBA in human resources management.

Degree in hand, Lan took a job as director of personnel at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lowell because Hai, who was working on a Ph.D. in political science at Boston University, had just begun teaching history at UMass Lowell. The Phos married in late 1968.

The following year, Hai was recruited to help two other history professors, Dean Bergeron and Joyce Denning, start the university’s brand-new Department of Political Science.

After Hai received his Ph.D. in 1972, then-university President Daniel O’Leary offered him a choice between tenure or a promotion from assistant to associate professor; Hai chose tenure. He also requested a two-year leave of absence without pay, wanting to serve his native country.

The Phos returned to Vietnam shortly after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973. Lan was recruited by the National Bank of Vietnam to work with the United Nations Development Program advisor on reorganizing the Vietnamese banking system.

For the next two years, Lan’s job provided most of the family’s income while Hai taught U.S. history and international relations at the University of Saigon Law School.

Hai’s choice of tenure at UMass Lowell proved life-saving as North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon: It meant that he, Lan and their first-born, a boy, were able to escape.

Lan Pho, left, and Hai Pho, right, stand in front of a display honoring their ancestors Image by K. Webster
Lan and Hai Pho stand before a displaying honoring their ancestors.

Helping Refugees

As soon as they returned to Lowell, the Phos began sponsoring and resettling family members and informally helping other Vietnamese refugees in greater Boston. In 1977, they and a dozen Boston-area friends incorporated the Indochinese Refugee Foundation to assist these new immigrants, most of them professionals and businesspeople, and keep their culture alive.

Then, in 1979, the U.S. began admitting more Southeast Asian refugees, including Vietnamese “boat people” living in refugee camps, Cambodians fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge, and Hmong villagers and others from Laos who had assisted U.S. forces. The State Department decided to resettle these refugees in clusters, including about 100 families who were sent to the Lowell-Lawrence area.

The government paid $500 per refugee to a local agency for resettlement, but it wasn’t nearly enough: Most of the refugees were women and children with little or no formal education, the Phos say.

The Indochinese Refugee Foundation sprang into action, with help from the Phos’ friends and other volunteers. Hai lobbied the State Department for more assistance, and eventually the foundation won a grant to assist the refugees with finding affordable housing, enrolling their children in school, accessing medical and mental health care, learning English and training for jobs.

The Phos hired Jacquie Moloney, who would later become UML chancellor, as project director for the foundation, alongside a bilingual teacher. But all of their efforts inspired refugees from Cambodia and Laos settled in other parts of the U.S. to move to Lowell – an unintended secondary migration that put tremendous pressure on city services.

“It was very much a crisis situation,” Moloney says. “The hospitals were overwhelmed, the schools were overwhelmed … In many cases, they put multiple families into a small apartment with no dishes or silverware, and they had no interpreters at the time, no health care.”

A New Model of Help

Moloney’s main job was to build a network of interpreters and outreach workers. The Phos insisted that the foundation hire refugees who spoke some English – something almost no other refugee assistance organizations did at the time.

The Phos also identified respected elders in the community and insisted that Moloney visit them in their homes, bringing small gifts and accepting a cup of tea to earn their trust, Moloney says.

“This was a community that had lost so much. The first thing the Phos wanted to accomplish was to give them back their dignity, and that’s what drove everything we did,” she says.

Hai led the foundation’s political efforts, helping to persuade then-Gov. Michael Dukakis to establish the Massachusetts Refugee Advisory Council in 1982, on which Hai served as co-chair.

After the first crisis passed, Lan, who was working for the Federal Reserve and teaching some management classes at the university as adjunct faculty, focused on getting the women jobs so they could become self-sufficient. She approached large companies and persuaded them to hire the women and provide them with training, including workplace English classes.

After five years, the Phos helped the refugees transition to three self-help organizations reflecting their distinct cultures and languages, and the foundation ended its resettlement work.

The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association is still going strong today, and Lowell has the second largest community of Cambodian Americans in the U.S.

“They saved that community,” Moloney says.

UMass Lowell Chancellor Julie Chen introduces Hai and Lan Pho to university and community members at an event in the Phos' honor Image by K. Webster
Chancellor Julie Chen addresses university and community members attending the event to honor the Phos.

A Pathway to Education

One major challenge remained: educating the refugee children. At first, the city school system placed all of them in a single building, the Moore Street School.

“The prevailing teaching approach at that time was to concentrate them in one school so they could learn English faster,” Lan says. “But we thought that exchanging English for their native language and family education would harm the youngsters, and something needed to be done.”

As some of the children moved on to middle and high school, even as more Southeast Asian refugees flocked to Lowell, Lan and the foundation’s bilingual education teacher, Joan Seeley, began visiting schools and interviewing students, teachers and principals.

They soon realized that the teachers were ill-prepared to help their Southeast Asian students, so the Phos sought help from the university’s School of Education.

The school hired Lan as full-time staff, and she enrolled in the new Doctor of Education program, where she did research on the refugees.

Lan developed a seminar, Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asian Countries, that the university offered to teachers after school and during the summers. She brought in Southeast Asian parents to help provide cultural context for curriculum development.

In some years, she even got grant funding to send a few Lowell teachers to spend several weeks at a school in one of the Southeast Asian countries from which their students came.

Advocate for Diversity

As the university’s students became more diverse, Lan, who completed her Ed.D. in 1994, was named founding director of the university’s Office of Diversity and Pluralism, now the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Among other initiatives, she developed the New Horizons program, a partnership between Lowell High School and the School of Education, to prepare promising Southeast Asian teenagers for college. The summer program paid the students a stipend so they could afford to attend instead of working.

Many New Horizons graduates went on to attend Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell, while some won scholarships to attend private schools, including Harvard University and Wellesley and Merrimack colleges.

Some of their descendants are at UMass Lowell today, where 12% of students are Asian and Asian American. A few, including Registrar Mai Nguyen and Senior Assoc. Director of Financial Aid Thu-Ha Pham, work at the university.

But the Phos themselves are modest about what they accomplished, insisting it was a community effort supported by their friends in the area and at the university.

“We can never forget the university – it is our roots,” Hai and Lan told the audience at the event. “We deeply appreciate and are truly thankful to the faculty, deans, graduate students and undergraduate students.”