updated 10/7/2005 11:48:45 AM ET 2005-10-07T15:48:45

Sanh Nguyen and his family packed everything from their past life into just a few bags. But what they received when they arrived in California instantly became their most prized possession.

It’s called an I-94, the government form that proves they came here legally and the ticket to obtaining a green card next year. It’s also the first document they’ve had in 16 years proving they belong anywhere at all.

The Nguyens are among 229 refugees from Vietnam who have landed in the United States after a journey that began when they fled the communist nation by boat in 1989, hoping to follow hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese who immigrated here.

Due to a quirk of timing, their journey would require years in a refugee camp in the Philippines.

“For so many years we tried to get out, it’s hard to believe we are here,” the 44-year-old Nguyen said last week, just days after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport with his wife and teenage daughter.

Forgotten in a Philippine camp
The detour began June 6, 1989, when he and his pregnant wife arrived on Palawan Island in the Philippines after seven days at sea, in hopes of soon making their way to the U.S. But they arrived at the camp three months too late.

In March 1989, 14 years after communists completed their takeover of Vietnam, the United Nations stopped recognizing Vietnamese as political refugees, saying most were leaving Vietnam for economic reasons. The thousands who remained in refugee camps throughout Asia had to apply for asylum and undergo rigorous screening.

No country was eager to take them. Nguyen said his family had little luck with immigration officials from several Western countries because their Vietnamese translators, also refugees, couldn’t clearly convey their story.

The family shared tight quarters and lived on less than a quarter pound of meat, plus rice, a day. Nguyen’s wife, Nhi, gave birth to their daughter, Truc, at the camp.

“She always cried,” Nhi Nguyen, 42, recalled. “It was very difficult, very painful to see that and not be able to do anything.”

In 1996, after the United Nations cut funding for Vietnamese camps throughout Asia, some countries began forcible repatriation back to Vietnam, a policy greeted by hunger strikes and rioting.

In the Philippines, then-President Fidel Ramos let the Vietnamese stay under the supervision of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were not given residency status or legal rights.

The Nguyens moved to an island southeast of Manila, where they carved out a black-market living selling perfume, flip flops and other sundries.

“After a certain time, of course I thought there’s no other way out, it’s over, the world has forgotten us,” Sanh Nguyen said.

Finally granted asylum
But activists soon began rallying behind the Vietnamese boat people stuck in the Philippines. Some Western-educated Vietnamese lawyers took up their cases and lobbied the governments of their adopted countries.

Small numbers of stateless refugees were resettled in nations including Australia over the years, but the largest number was granted asylum last year after the United States adopted a generous interpretation of refugee laws to qualify 1,855 Vietnamese in the Philippines for resettlement.

Last Monday, the Nguyens were among the first batch arriving on a chartered flight from Manila to Los Angeles.

“Their arrival marks the beginning of the end of our 30-year saga as boat people,” said Lan Quoc Nguyen, director of the California-based Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers.

Nghia Trung Huynh, who has helped resettle refugees for 22 years, expects the refugees to become self-sufficient quickly — they’ve learned to survive with much less.

“I was stuck in a camp for eight months and have painful memories of that time. Everyday I wondered ’When will I get out?”’ Huynh said. “They had to ask that question for 16 years.”

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