5 min read

My family’s first Christmas in Canada

This holiday season, some of us will be safely surrounded by loved ones, enjoying all the finer things we’ve come to cherish. Sadly, some of us will not be afforded this privilege. Chau Pham shares the remarkable story of his family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to Canada, reminding us that humanity and compassion can surprise us, even in our darkest hours.

Having come to Canada from Vietnam when he was 13 years old, Chau fully understands the power of financial literacy to help families reach their goals. As Senior Manager & Client Lead, Financial Education & Employer Services, he helps people learn how to use money as a tool to attain safety, flexibility, and security.
Our family of six arrived in Toronto on May 15, 1975, after the fall of Saigon. And we got there by the grace of someone I only ever knew as “Mr. Murphy”.

By early April 1975, the war wasn’t going well for South Vietnam. Everybody with substantial ties to the South Vietnamese government or the U.S. were frantically looking for a way out.

I was 13 years old at the time, and saw refugees from the Highlands streaming into Saigon. Desperation and hardships were everywhere.

Some years before that, my parents had built a twin villa with the intention of having my grandparents live next door. However, once it was completed my grandparents decided not to come. With a large house sitting empty, my parents decided to put the house into the American embassy rental pool for U.S. personnel coming over, as the American involvement in Vietnam increased.

The tenants usually rotated every two to three years, and in the spring of 1975 our tenant was Mr. Murphy. My parents were quite close to him, inviting him for dinner parties, and when his family came to visit my dad took a week off to show them around.

But it all changed suddenly one night, when he urgently knocked on our door around midnight. My mom told my dad to go speak with him, assuming that Mr. Murphy was terminating the lease early.

An hour later, dad came back and told her that she was right. Mr. Murphy was ending the lease early, but it was much more consequential than that.

The situation was getting so bad in Saigon that Mr. Murphy offered to help us leave the country. He would guarantee our safety until we reached the United States, but under strict conditions. We would need to leave that morning at 5 am – just the six of us – and my parents could tell no one.

My parents tearfully accepted his offer, with my mom quickly writing letters to my grandparents and making arrangements for the house staff who would be left behind.

Awoken in the wee hours, my siblings and I were told we didn’t have to go to school. Instead, we should put on our “special” outfits. These were safari suits my mom had made in preparation for a fast departure, with gold sewn into the pants and jackets, along with a list of trusted contacts to call in case we got separated in the chaos.

I asked where we were going while putting on my special outfit. “On a big adventure!”, my mom said. We all then literally walked out of our lives in the dark of night.

At 5 am sharp, Mr. Murphy had us climb into the trunk of his car – one of those black, boat-sized American cars – and he drove to the American side of the airport. (The other side was under siege.) He then took us to his office, where he calmly put on his badge, holster and gun and told us to wait (and not move) in his office until he came back.

A few hours later, with the airport in total darkness, we lined up and boarded the school buses that arrived in convoy formation. They literally screamed onto the tarmac, and ahead I saw huge transport planes landing with no lights. The massive rear gates dropped as they yelled at us to run onto the ramp and just sit down.

The next morning, not long after we landed in Subic Bay, the Philippines, Mr. Murphy told my dad to do as instructed by the other Americans. Mr. Murphy told us he was going back to Saigon and would meet us again, “somewhere and sometime”.

We then boarded the next plane and arrived on a Marines base in Guam, where we spent the next week. For us kids, it was like going on vacation. The naval base was on the ocean, with white sand beach and a lagoon where we swam and explored. And when hungry, there was the mess hall open all day.

From there we went to another Marines base, Camp Pendleton in San Diego, and we were there for another week. One day while we were walking, somebody called my dad’s name. It was Mr. Murphy. He spoke briefly with my dad, handing him an envelope and saying it was from my grandmother. He had clearly picked it up back in Saigon, which is why he said he would see us again.

Mr. Murphy told my dad he was happy we’d arrived safely in the U.S., and that from then on it was up to us where we would go. He said goodbye, turned around and we never saw him again. However, we exchanged Christmas cards with him for three or four years afterwards, until one day when our mail was mysteriously returned...

My dad interviewed with various country delegations and chose Canada, as he had cousins and two sisters living in Montreal and we were bilingual. It was the best choice. Our first meal on arriving in Canada was at Harvey’s in Toronto. For the past 48 years, on May 15, our family has continued to celebrate “Happy Harvey’s Day”.

We also continue to celebrate Christmas, as we had for years back in Vietnam with our big Christmas tree, dinner parties and mom’s Yule log. In fact, it was during that first Christmas in 1975 when I realized we were not going back to our previous lives. Canada was our new home.

Still very recent immigrants, my brother and I decided that we wanted to make sure our two younger sisters would have a “normal” Christmas in our new country. So, we pooled our money from part-time jobs to buy presents and decorations.
It was a time when we had the least. Yet it was a Christmas I still very fondly remember today. We had our turkey to carve, yule log cake to eat, and presents for my sisters to open. But most importantly, we had each other.

This holiday season, I hope that you and the family ties you’re either born to – or bonded with – are happy, harmonious, and everlasting.

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