By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 9, 2021
ATLANTA—When Lieu Nguyen waits at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to greet flight-weary families who face uncertain futures, he knows in his heart those feelings.
It was on Saturday, Aug. 28, 1982 that Nguyen and his young family arrived in Georgia from a refugee camp on the other side of the world.
He has 31 years’ experience ushering people from war-ravaged countries and fleeing persecution to new lives.
“I’m a refugee. I never forget,” he said.
Nguyen works for Catholic Charities Atlanta (CCA), a nonprofit agency that partners with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. He is one of a team of around 20 staff members catering to the needs of these families.
Countless people have gotten their start in the Archdiocese of Atlanta with his efforts. At a Vietnamese restaurant, Nguyen is known to share how he aided the eatery’s owners. Or there is a summer intern, whose grandparents he remembers despite the passage of three decades since assisting them. Or an Atlanta priest, who as a newly arrived teenager, was taken to get vaccinations and registered for school with Nguyen’s help.
‘Devoted to service’
Frances McBrayer led refugee resettlement services at the Catholic nonprofit for more than a dozen years before leaving in 2020. She said Nguyen’s life and experience set an example for others.
“The way he cares for his family, his clients, his co-workers, and generally just everyone around him is genuine,” she said. “He has been through so much in his life, and as a result, he does not sweat the small stuff.”
His colleagues jokingly call him “Mr. Midnight” for his enthusiasm for greeting arrivals who often first step foot in Atlanta as the rest of the city sleeps.
Working with refugees requires a spirit of “hien,” the Vietnamese word Nguyen uses. It is a layered word, meaning nice, positive attitude and welcoming.
“You must have a heart and a good attitude,” said Nguyen, placing his hand on his chest.
A pillar of Catholic Charities is aiding families vetted by the United Nations and government agencies before their arrival. By law, refugees are people who experienced persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
The number of refugees globally has grown. Meanwhile, the numbers of refugees accepted into the United States were set to historically low levels under President Trump. Between 2013 and 2017, Georgia received an average of 4,651 refugees a year. People resettled in Georgia in 2018 fell nearly 39 percent, according to data collected by the Associated Press. According to numbers from Catholic Charities Atlanta, 313 refugees were resettled in 2016, dropping to 62 in 2020.
Respected colleague sharing knowledge
Essence Vinson, the senior director for Refugee Services, said Nguyen has been a calming voice with deep institutional knowledge during her four months in the position.
“His mantra to me is don’t worry. That is his statement to me,” said Vinson. “If Mr. Lieu says ‘don’t worry’, I don’t. ”
Catholic Charities resettlement staff work in an office park near the Northlake Mall in DeKalb County. Nguyen’s cubicle is decorated with an American flag, an image of Our Lady of LaVang, which tradition has is an 18-century appearance of Mary during the persecutions of Vietnamese Catholics, and a typed note: “Do Not Ask the Lord to Guide Your Steps/If You Do Not Intend to Move Your Feet.”
Coworkers treat him as a respected colleague and beloved grandfather figure, learning from his depth of knowledge and contacts.
It was just a coincidence that Mary Do, a CCA intern attending the University of Notre Dame, learned about her own family’s journey to America and Nguyen’s role in it.
“I had no idea my family came through this agency,” said Do.
Nguyen first asked if she spoke Vietnamese then asked her about her paternal grandparents, linking her last name and living in Columbus, 100 miles away, where there is a small Vietnamese community. He welcomed her father’s large family, and may have helped her mom’s family too, she said. Both arrived here in the early 1990s.
“I didn’t know they were considered refugees,” she said. “It makes me appreciate all they did and more,” she said about Catholic Charities Atlanta.
During her internship, Do has met families fleeing Central America and Afghanistan, setting up modest apartments for them.
“It’s super special knowing the agency did the same for my family,” she said.
Jimmy Lai has worked alongside Nguyen for three years. He has learned invaluable advice, with reminders to treat people with gentleness.
“His kindness is definitely his greatest strength in why he has been here for so long and able to push through even the hardest of times,” said Lai. “He has hope, like so much hope there is always going to be a better day.”
From Vietnam to Atlanta
Nguyen grew up in a small community in South Vietnam, while most of his extended family lived in North Vietnam. His father taught school while his mother raised their eight children and sold small trinkets out of the home. Daily Mass was a part of life. For a time, he attended a seminary.
In his 20s, he served as an officer in the Vietnamese Navy. At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, communists forced him to enter a re-education camp. Years later, crammed into a small boat with more than 150 people, he and his wife, Dao Ngo, fled by boat as part of the mass exodus of refugees. It was a week at sea until they arrived in Indonesia, he said. The refugee camp was his home for more than a year and where his oldest of two children was born. The family later flew to Atlanta.
They settled in Hapeville, neighboring the airport, which was the destination for many Vietnamese refugees at the time. He found jobs where there was work, including a machinery job and on a shrimp boat in Louisiana. He worships at Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale. It was his former pastor who encouraged him to apply with Catholic Charities seeing the need for Vietnamese speakers to help refugees.
He started when President George H. W. Bush was in office. He only expected to stay for five years, but his role is about more than just longevity. Nguyen believes it continues the work which began the day he was baptized: to show love to all. “Everybody is my brother and sister,” said Nguyen.
He faithfully attends Mass at his parish. Among the congregation, Nguyen sees those he helped like Father Tri Nguyen—no relation—who arrived in Georgia as a teenager in 1993. They see each other when the priest attends Mass with his parents.
“He really cares about the people he is helping,” said the priest. He remembered the help with trips to get documents, doctor’s appointments and for school enrollment. They were “little things for the family in the country for the first time,” said Father Nguyen.
Years of aiding newcomers
Refugees have around 90 days to become largely self-sufficient. Time is short to get an identification card, start a job, enroll in school and learn the basics of the culture, like how to shop.
According to McBrayer, when Nguyen walks into the Department of Driver Services, he knows everyone. They all smile, he hands them the paperwork for his clients, and they walk out with their new Georgia identification cards, she recalled.
Nguyen has a gift to navigate bureaucracies.
“Mr. Lieu is not fazed by an unfamiliar system,” she said. “He just learns it, and he does all of it with a smile.”
Newcomers receive tough love from Nguyen. Success can hinge on quickly finding a job and being connected to other community members, he said.
He encourages people to find their faith home, whether they are Buddhists, Baptists or Muslim. Being with others who know your culture grounds people and helps them from feeling overwhelmed in the new country, he said. A job gives people a sense of purpose, in addition to earning money, he said.
At the airport watching for the new arrivals, Nguyen says he never forgets how vulnerable the people are because he walked in their shoes.
Asked about retirement, Nguyen said he feels he still has a repayment to Jesus for life’s blessings.
In Vietnamese, he said, “Every day when I get up I praise God and I tell him about everything I need to do today. I tell him, if I can’t do it, he has to do it.”