Noelle Nguyen, 53, spends her time helping elderly Vietnamese people speak to their doctors at Culmore Clinic in Falls Church, Va.

Then, sometimes, she invites them to her home.

“They don’t have anyone. They ask me for my phone number. I have to give it to them,” she says. “And I go and help them and comfort them. My job is not just to translate. My job is also to help them with whatever they need.”

And, as she sees it, being able to offer that help is the privilege of a lifetime. A lifetime shaped by the promise — and deliverance — of American opportunity.

“When I came to America, American people shared with me. And I’ve become an American now, so I share with other people,” she explains. “And it’s a great feeling. It’s a joy. I cannot do big things. I do tiny, little things. But Mother Teresa says we can’t do great things. But we can do little things with great love.”

A young immigrant

Noelle was a 13-year-old in Vietnam when she and three of her siblings were loaded onto a small ferry packed with refugees. Until the communists took over the nation three years earlier, Noelle’s dad had been a government accountant. After the 1975 takeover, he was sent to a reeducation camp and became a motorbike taxi driver. The family’s home was seized, and Noelle’s parents feared for the futures of their 11 children.

Noelle Nguyen (R) talks with Cindy Nothom (L), a volunteer registered nurse, and Patricia Ani-Adjei (C), a volunteer medical assistant, at an office at the Culmore Clinic in Falls Church, Virginia. (Toya Sarno Jordan for The Washington Post)
Noelle Nguyen (R) talks with Cindy Nothom (L), a volunteer registered nurse, and Patricia Ani-Adjei (C), a volunteer medical assistant, at an office at the Culmore Clinic in Falls Church, Virginia. (Toya Sarno Jordan for The Washington Post)

Until she was aboard the boat, disguised as a sugar-cane cargo ship, Noelle didn’t fully understand what was happening. Her parents hadn’t told her where she was headed, fearing that she might breathe word of their planned escape. Noelle didn’t even get to say goodbye to her mother.

The boat was headed toward Hong Kong, a journey that was expected to take four days. But the ship got turned around and was lost at sea for a month, without enough food or water for the 37 cramped, exposed passengers. Their bellies ached from hunger as their clothes disintegrated from the sun and salt air. At one point a storm ravaged the vessel.

“I remember looking up; it was like the wave was going to engulf us,” she says. “And then when we were on top of the wave; then we looked down and it was a dark, deep valley. It was so scary. Everyone was holding each other’s hand, and we were ready to die.”

That was the first time Noelle prayed. As a child, she’d slept in bed with her mother and listened as her mother talked about God. A missionary gave Noelle a Bible when she was a girl, and on the ship she recalled a story about God calming the sea. “Can you do it again?” she asked in the midst of the storm.

Escaping the boat

Finally, the boat found its way to an island off China. Ten days later, they made it to Hong Kong.

Noelle and her siblings lived in a refugee camp for a year, waiting for an American group to sponsor their passage to the United States. Finally they arrived in Chicago Heights, Ill., in the winter of 1978.

After 10 years in the United States, the Nguyen siblings succeeded in bringing their parents over.

Noelle Nguyen displays an image on her cell phone showing her and her two sons, Paul Le (M) and JP Le (R). (Toya Sarno Jordan for The Washington Post)
Noelle Nguyen displays an image on her cell phone showing her and her two sons, Paul Le (M) and JP Le (R). (Toya Sarno Jordan for The Washington Post)

By then, a stroke had blinded her father. And her mother looked so old to Noelle. But the two women had something new in common: the fervency of their prayers.

After college, Noelle flew east to join a sibling in the Washington area. She landed a job in finance at Freddie Mac and began going to church every day at lunch, often asking God a question that’s become her refrain: “What do you want me to do?”

Serving others

Through friends she met another Vietnamese immigrant who became her husband. When their second son was born with ear problems, she hesitantly left her job to stay home full time. But she did not stay home. Toddler in tow, Noelle began spending time at a retirement home. She volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter. She delivered food to the infirm and started teaching religious education classes.

Noelle Nguyen sits in prayer at the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, located next to the Culmore Clinic, in Falls Church, Virginia. (Toya Sarno Jordan for The Washington Post)
Noelle Nguyen sits in prayer at the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, located next to the Culmore Clinic, in Falls Church, Virginia. (Toya Sarno Jordan for The Washington Post)

“It was a long journey, missing my parents and having to live very poorly,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. “But then we learned a lot. We learned to be among the poor. We learned to be one of them. And so we know how they are, and we have compassion.”

Today Noelle is petite and reserved, with sparking eyes and warm hands. “I don’t want to talk about myself,” she says.

And she usually doesn’t. No one, not even her husband, knows what she does during the day. She takes care of the people in her own home, and then she takes care of everyone else she possibly can. She tells the kids in her Catholic religious education classes that it’s not enough to just believe.

“You can’t say you love God and then walk around and see people who are hungry or need help and walk away. That’s not loving God,” she says.

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