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30 Years Later, Immigrants Shed Vietnam War's Burdens

She persisted, determined to challenge what she said is the patriarchal tradition that dominated Vietnam and immigrant circles here. "We have to rebuild," Dang said. "You can't call yourself a community and just have a group of old men sitting around the table."

Dang was 7 years old when the war ended. She only knew that the bombs had stopped falling and she would never have to hide again.

Sandy Hoa Dang, second from left, cheers during her Asian American community group's spring celebration. From left, Jessica Valencia, Debbie Huynh and Miriam Cabieses look on. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

The conflicts within a community, Dang soon learned, never end.

In Hanoi, her ethnic Chinese family members were never considered "real" Vietnamese. They didn't fight in the war. When fighting later flared between Vietnam and China, they fled north. In China, though, they weren't considered "real" Chinese. The Chinese government sent them to labor on sugar cane plantations.

In 1979, Dang's family bought passage on a fishing boat crammed with more than 300 refugees from Vietnam. The family spent three years in a Hong Kong refugee camp before immigrating, eventually landing in New York.

Her father worked as a janitor, her mother as a seamstress. Dang was the eldest of four children and served as her parents' translator. For 10 years, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment.

Dang escaped through her studies, excelling in school and winning scholarships to Duke University. She arrived on a Greyhound bus. Her classmates drove luxury cars.

When she came to Washington to earn a master's degree in social work from Catholic University, she found a Vietnamese American community of 50,000 still governed by rules and hierarchy from the old country. Elders have priority, and men are the leaders.

Many families from the elite social circles in South Vietnam -- who escaped the country as soon as Saigon fell -- had little interaction with the poorer, less educated families who came later. Such as those in the enclave of about 5,000 Vietnamese living in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

These immigrants, who arrived in the 1990s, were the last significant wave of refugees. Many were Amerasians. Others had been imprisoned for years in communist "re-education" camps and immigrated under political asylum. Social service agencies in the District were ill-equipped to help.

Dang found her mission. "I know this as an extension of my family. I know how difficult it is to be in this country and come here with nothing."

She started Asian American LEAD as an after-school program, and it has grown into a nationally recognized group with a $1.2 million budget. President Bill Clinton invited her to the White House.

The number of Vietnamese immigrants in the District has dwindled to about 2,000, Dang estimates. Many families have moved to the suburbs; Dang jokes that some of them now drive cars fancier than her Honda Civic. Those left, including Phuong Nguyen's family, are planning to follow soon.

Dang, too, is moving her life beyond the organization. For years, she has been so consumed with work that friends worried about her. Last year, she married, and her husband, Sanal Mazvancheryl, has no connection to Vietnam. He was born in India to an upper-class family and is a business professor at Georgetown University

Dang returns to Vietnam every few years. Her Vietnam no longer is bombs falling from the sky. It is fresh, ripe mangoes, she said, firecrackers exploding at Lunar New Year and quiet, green vistas.

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