A refugee’s story: Would you take him in?

Dr. Vinh Chung, with his family, says there are security issues to be addressed with refugees. ‘What we can do,’ he adds, ‘is recognize our fears and keep them in perspective...’
Dr. Vinh Chung, with his family, says there are security issues to be addressed with refugees. ‘What we can do,’ he adds, ‘is recognize our fears and keep them in perspective...’ Courtesy of Dr. Vinh Chung

If you lived out West, and had a serious skin cancer, like melanoma, you might be referred for treatment to Vinh Chung, a surgeon in Colorado Springs. For several years running he has been named “Top Doc” in his specialty. Patients from many states come to seek his expertise.

Chung graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and trained at Harvard and Emory medicals schools. He is a specialist in the most advanced treatments for skin cancers and has received national awards for his research.

Chung’s care goes beyond his technical proficiency. He gives his personal cellphone number to every surgery patient and calls to check on them after surgery. “I take care of my patients,” he explains, “the way I would want another doctor to take care of my mother and father.”

On his website you can see his picture, smiling and intelligent, dressed in his white doctor’s gown. But there’s another photo of him as an 8-year old boy, taken by a Pultitzer Prize-winning photo journalist. Vinh is dressed only in a blue shirt, leaning in his mother’s arms in a rickety boat on the South China Sea. They are some of the Vietnamese “boat people.”

In the late ’70s he and his family were refugees from the communist regime in Vietnam. Under cover of darkness his father put his family on a patched-up fishing trawler and headed for Malaysia. The Malaysians turned them away, fearing they were insurgent Chinese communists. The Malaysian navy towed their boat out to sea, cut the rope, and left them to die.

For five days they floated without power or food or water, 93 refugees in a boat 35-feet long. Then Stan Mooneyham, president of World Vision, spotted them from a boat he had leased to locate and rescue boat people. The family was taken aboard, given haven in Singapore, and eventually flown to the United States and a new home in Fort Smith, Ark.

They were an Asian family in a sea of white faces. But the city welcomed them. A Baptist church reached out to embrace them. His father, who had been CEO of a multi-million-dollar rice company in Vietnam, took on menial jobs. Chung and his 10 siblings learned English, and among them have earned 22 university degrees, including five master’s and six doctorates!

I met Chung when he spoke here some months ago. So last week I emailed and asked what he, a refugee himself, would say about the current debate over the Syrian refugees, and whether some should be welcomed into our country. Here’s his response:

“It would be foolish and naïve to suggest that Western nations today should simply open their borders and accept any and all refugees in a grand display of compassion. There are security issues that have to be addressed. What we can do is recognize our fears and keep them in perspective, because fear casts a shadow larger than itself. Fear withdraws to protect itself, but gratitude reaches out.

“Stan Mooneyham,” he continues, “had no large-scale political solution to the refugee crisis of his day. He simply chose to see refugees as suffering human beings. My family is alive today because of what he did. That was his legacy, and it’s a legacy we should all seek to pass on.”

If I were one of Dr. Chung’s patients, I believe I would be very grateful that, unlike Malaysia, Americans welcomed his family with open arms and hearts.

Dec. 13 is National Refugee Sunday. At church you may hear a reading from Matthew’s gospel, telling how after Jesus was born an angel appeared to his father Joseph in a dream and said, “Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So as we celebrate Christmas we may think about this: When God sent his Son into the world he came as a poor refugee, fleeing from a terrorist.

I think Vinh Chung, now a devoted follower of Christ, would ask us as we face the largest refugee crisis in history, 60 million refugees from global conflicts, how will we react: With fear? Or gratitude?

Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.