Tom Huynh brings experience as Vietnamese refugee to West Valley City Council

Story and photo by EMILY ANDERSON

When he first arrived at Philippine First Asylum Center (PFAC) in the island province Palawan from Vietnam, Tom Huynh was shocked by the “horrible” conditions of the camp.

“It was a sad place, very depressing,” Huynh said. “But people had no choice.”

He was immediately placed in a 12-by-12 room with seven other people. His unit was given a card identifying everyone in the flat, which allowed them to obtain two cups of rice, one piece of broccoli and two pieces of fish to be divided among the occupants each day.

As Huynh was standing in line to collect the food during his first few days in the camp, he met a man in his 60s. The man told Huynh that he had a lot to learn in the coming years — the refugee camp was a whole new world.

The pair arrived at the front of the line. The fish given to the man was rotten, although there was a heap of fresh fish behind the refugee who had been assigned to pass out the rations. Huynh said he protested the unjust treatment, but the man stopped him. He told Huynh the pile of newly-caught fish was being saved for the distributor’s family and friends.

After thanking Huynh for standing up for him, the man said, “Tom, promise me that if you’re ever in a position of power, you will treat people fairly.”

Huynh said he has always remembered the man’s plea and it has influenced the way he lives his life.

Vietnamese refugee Tom Huynh has served on the West Valley City Council for six years.

Since coming to the U.S., Huynh has pursued a career in politics while working as a real estate agent. He was elected to the West Valley City Council in 2011, and is in his second term in the District 1 seat.

Huynh’s journey to government leadership began with his father’s efforts to defend his own government.

Journey to Safety

In the aftermath of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, in which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea to remove the Khmer Rouge from power, the Vietnamese military continued to fight against armed Cambodian groups who opposed the new regime until 1989.

The government continued to tap all men above age 18 for military service. Many of Huynh’s friends had been drafted to patrol the Cambodian borders. Many were killed. Some returned home with missing limbs, he said.

Huynh’s father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was killed in the Vietnam War when Huynh was 5 years old. This left his mother to care for her children alone, which included bribing military officials to keep Huynh out of the military.

When the financial pressure on his mother became too great, Huynh said he fled the country on a boat with his 15-year-old sister Tiet in 1986 to avoid being conscripted.

Between 1975 and 1995, others were leaving the country to escape economic despair brought on by U.S. sanctions and destruction left in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Huynh and 99 other refugees packed into a boat that was approximately 10 feet by 30 feet. The group was so densely crowded that Huynh was confined to a singular spot the entire trip.

At one point on the journey, the boat became lost. The party ran out of food and water, then people began dying.

“Everyone was scared to the point that they were like, ‘I see you and you see me, but we’re not human beings anymore,’” Huynh said. “They knew they were going to die.”

It was a miracle that Huynh made it to the refugee camp, he said.

“At that moment, I was not a religious guy,” Huynh said. “But I looked into the sky and I said, ‘I really don’t want to die. I’m only 19. So please help me out.’”

When he arrived, Philippine First Asylum Camp hosted about 3,000 people on approximately 1 square mile of land. The refugees were desperate and crime rates were high.

“There was everything there,” Huynh said. “I witnessed a fight where someone stabbed someone else about 2 or 3 feet from me, for no reason really — it was over the water.”

Huynh was trying to avoid being lured into crime like the other men his age in the camp, he said, so he volunteered to pass out mail to other refugees.

“I didn’t want to waste my time,” Huynh said. “I like to work, and the employees at the camp center could see that.”

After three months, he was promoted to deputy of the planning commission. His job was to keep records of how many people were staying in each housing unit, then assign rooms to new arrivals.

“It kept me very busy, all day every day,” Huynh said. “I was lucky, because then I stayed out of trouble.”

Despite the success he found in the camp, Huynh wanted out. The refugees were plagued with rampant alcoholism, drug addiction and violence, while many young women were forced into sex work as a means to make money.

Six months after Huynh arrived at the camp, representatives from the U.N. came to interview refugees to be considered for admission into the U.S. They prioritized people like Huynh, who were children of South Vietnamese soldiers. However, there was one stipulation — refugees had to provide multiple documents to prove their parents’ position.

“My dad sacrificed his life, so I had the privilege to go to the city center to speak with the delegation,” Huynh said.

Huynh slid his father’s military ID — one of the few things he brought on the boat — across the table at his meeting with a U.N. official. This was the only document he had, because his mother, like many other South Vietnamese, burned documents connecting their family to the American forces to avoid persecution from the new government.

The official, whose name Huynh recalled as Pam, told him that although she wanted to sponsor him, she couldn’t. The ID wasn’t enough documentation to prove that he was the son of a South Vietnamese soldier.

Huynh said he began to worry that he would never be able to leave the camp.

Then, as part of what Huynh called another miracle, there were a series of coup attempts on the Filipino government — one of which resulted in a fierce battle on the streets of Palawan.

The U.S. government became concerned about the welfare of refugees on the island, so it gave a number of those living in PFAC another opportunity to be interviewed for acceptance into the country. Huynh was given a second chance to get out.

Although Huynh was unable to obtain additional documentation, the official he met with told him he had been cleared to leave the camp, and would be transported to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Bataan. His next and final stop would be the U.S.

He left PFAC in 1987. Soon after, the U.N. stopped accepting refugees into the camp and began reducing its size. Some people volunteered to return to Vietnam, while others fought the guards and committed suicide.

Huynh was elated to be relieved of the uncertainty associated with being a refugee.

“You don’t know where you’re going to go, where you’re going to end up or how your life is going to be,” he said. “Are they going to send you back to Vietnam? Are they going to send you to Canada, Australia or somewhere else? You just don’t know. Your destination, your life, depends on someone else. It leaves you feeling powerless and useless.”

While at PRPC, Huynh met missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were teaching English.

He said he was curious about the religion, because he had been on a quest to find the right religion for him since his plea to God earlier on the boat. Huynh’s family was Buddhist, and he previously attended Catholic and Baptist churches.

“I just wanted something that felt comfortable,” he said. “At the Mormon church, I had a sense that they were nice people.”

When Huynh was processed and relocated to the U.S., he was baptized into the church and served a mission in Washington, D.C., from 1990 to 1992. Huynh credited the changes the religion forced him to make and the lessons he learned on his mission for many of his life’s successes.

“I wanted a different path in my life, and my decision brought me to where I am today,” he said.

Ongoing Political Journey

Huynh later graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Asian studies. Upon graduation, he was appointed president of the Vietnamese Community of Utah. He hopes to eventually go to law school, but for now he wants to continue his political career.

“Politics are very complex,” Huynh said. “In China, Vietnam or any communist country, they don’t trust government. They don’t trust police. Then when [people from those countries] come here, they stay away from government and police — but I want to be different. I want to do something to help people around me.”

His determination to forge a path for marginalized communities in politics not only increases the diversity of voices at the table, but also encourages other minorities to be involved in the community.

“It is inspiring to see someone so close to home break down socio-cultural barriers and proving that we are capable of taking on larger roles like politics,” said the Vietnamese-American Student Association at the University of Utah in a prepared statement. “The younger Vietnamese-American can often feel detached from the government due to lack of [Vietnamese] representation, often discouraging them from participating in civic engagement. Tom Huynh’s position as the West Valley City Councilman empowers the younger generation and encourages them to strive toward active political awareness.”

Caren Frost, the director of the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration at the University of Utah, said in a telephone interview that civic engagement is the last step of integration for a refugee. She feels that as Huynh continues to succeed, his political involvement will extend beyond Vietnamese-Americans to inspire all refugees in Utah.

“If a refugee is visible in the community participating in government, then all refugees will feel more comfortable taking the next step and getting involved,” Frost said.

As a city councilman, Huynh focuses on mending the problems of not just refugees, but other groups who are also frequently forgotten. He reaches out to senior citizens in the community to listen to their perspective. Since 2013, Huynh has gone on twice-monthly ride-alongs with police in an effort to solve the city’s crime problem.

“In government, you can change things,” Huynh said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

Utah dance groups teach younger generations about their Filipino heritage

Story and multimedia by DANA IGO

Get a glimpse of Likha’s traditional dance costumes

Manny Evangelista grew up in the Bicol region of the Philippines on the tiny palm tree covered island of Burias.  In 1979, he moved to California to attend Stanford University on a scholarship. An avid skier, Evangelista took a trip to Utah where he broke his back in a skiing accident. During recovery he took a liking to Salt Lake City and made the valley his home.

Though he has spent the majority of his life in America he still remains close to his Filipino heritage through an appreciation of traditional dance and the Filipino language.

Unlike Evangelista, his children lacked knowledge about their heritage. They had trouble straddling the line between American and Filipino culture. “They had fully integrated but there was something missing,” Evangelista said.

In 1996 Evangelista started Likha, the Philippine American Cultural Ensemble of Utah. Likha is a cultural and educational organization focused on teaching children about their ethnic backgrounds as well as teaching the community at large about the Philippines. “There was a need to promote the Filipino culture,” he said.

Likha means creation in Filipino, a fitting title given the organization creates a place for Filipino-Americans to learn about where they came from and who they are.

Dance, which is a major facet of the Filipino cultural identity, is Likha’s signature program and currently includes 37 performers of all skill levels, many being children and teenagers. The dance group performs at festivals like Living Traditions, an annual event in Salt Lake City showcasing cultural traditions from all over the world. They also perform at school assemblies.

Many former dancers of Likha who have gone on to attend universities across the country travel back to perform.  They also teach younger generations about the power of knowing the culture they came from. “They say, ‘I’m in this university because of the fact that I’ve learned to understand who I am,’” Evangelista said.

Like Evangelista, Eunice Jones, 51, grew up in the Philippines. She was the daughter of a farmer and a seamstress who lived in a small village nestled between the mountains and the ocean with their 11 children. In 1986 she moved to Los Angeles for a job opportunity. Later she moved to Las Vegas and finally to Salt Lake City.

Jones, a community leader who heads the Asian Advisory Council and started the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, has seen a lack of unity among Filipinos in Utah. She says she wanted to pull them together into one organization. In August 2010 she started the Kulturang Pinoy (meaning Filipino Culture) Ensemble (KPE).

Along with traditional dances, KPE tries to incorporate Tagalog, the root of the Filipino language, into its lessons. Jones doesn’t want children to lose the linguistic connection to their families’ homeland. She says when her own children speak their native language (they were born in the Philippines but moved to the U.S. before age 5) they sound funny because they have become Americanized.

Agnes Higley, the vice president of KPE, said teaching Filipino culture to children is the main reason why she participates in the dance group. She felt Filipinos weren’t represented enough at cultural festivals and KPE was a way to both teach about the culture and give representation in the state.

Currently, KPE has around 35 members composed of children, teenagers and adults. It’s grown fast and has garnered interest from the surrounding community. In September 2010, KPE hosted a fundraiser to help purchase costumes and props for its performances. Donors from all cultures were invited to attend and together they raised enough money for KPE to begin purchasing the items it needs to enhance its dances for festivals, weddings and other events.

Filipino dances reflect the different parts of Filipino heritage, Evangelista said. There are dances that hail from certain geographic areas of the Philippines and dances that are performed for special events. Likha performs three types of dance: ethnic, rural and folk.

Evangelista said folk dances are “Hispanized” or influenced by Spain in both music and style. Ethnic dances are traditionally Filipino and reflect the origination of dance in the Philippines. Rural dances incorporate western images and themes.

Costumes are a big part of Filipino dance performances. A video of Likha’s 2009 performance shows a dance called Polkabol. In it the women wear sunset colored dresses with long, wide brimmed skirts, which conjure images of toned down flamenco costumes. Underneath they wear petticoats, giving the skirts a full appearance. As the women dance they swing their skirts in fluid motions with one hand as they hold fans in the other.

In the Tinikling dance, some women wear knee-length blue skirts with red tulle layered over the top. Other women wear the colors reversed. They all wear blouses of different colors and styles. The men wear white shirts with black pants.

All of the dances, regardless of origin, express aspects of the homeland and the cultural identity of the Filipino people, providing an opportunity for children and community members alike to learn about the Philippines.

Eunice Jones: ‘More than a Realtor’

Story and photo by SHAANTAI LEARY

Dressed in a black suit, with costume pearls draped around her neck, Eunice Jones, 51, spoke recently about her struggles while growing up in the Philippines. “Everyone has a story,” Jones said.

There was no electricity, so she and her brothers and sisters would use a gas lamp to do homework. On the weekends, they would do their wash in the river. Her father was an alcoholic who beat her and her siblings often; her mother was a seamstress as well as the homemaker.

“I own[ed] my first pair of shoes when I was 13 years old,” Jones said; they were a gift from her sister for her 6th grade graduation.

When she was young, Jones would sell things such as salt in the town market. The money allowed her to help out with school supplies for all 11 children; she was seventh from the oldest. “I was in sales since I was a little girl,” Jones said with a chuckle in her voice.

Jones eventually landed a job with the Hyatt hotel in the Philippines. The Hyatt then found her a position in Los Angeles, Calif. She accepted the job offer knowing that she would be leaving behind two young sons, who were 2  and 2 months old at the time, until she could get them visas to enter the U.S.

Every day she would ride the bus two hours from Glendale to L.A. just to get to work. “It was an experience,” Jones said.

She would send the money she made back to her family in the Philippines to help them raise her children. It was not until three years later that Jones was able to get her two children visas to bring them to America. By this time she was working for the Hilton in Las Vegas.

She had decided to start looking for a suitable partner so that her children could have a father figure. Jones married a man by the name of Blake Jones and they all moved to Utah in 1995. She decided to take real estate classes and in 1996 she got her license. One year later Better Home and Garden gave her the Rookie of the Year award.

”If you meet 10 people every day, you will grow your database,” Jones said.

Tim Ryan, 44, has bought and sold several homes using Jones’ assistance. He met her in 2005 while touring a home for sale. Ryan said he ended up purchasing the home because of Jones.

Currently, he is selling his home in Olympus Cove; Jones is the Realtor. Ryan likes to use her services because she has a “pocket full of clients.” He described her as being very persistent and realistic.

“It’s never a letdown, that’s what I like about her,” Ryan said. He feels that Jones is “more than a Realtor.” Ryan and his wife now have dinner with Jones and have developed a more personal relationship.

Eunice Jones: hard work changes life from rags to riches

Story and photo by LAUREN CARTER

Eunice Jones received her first pair of shoes at 13 years old. They were a gift from her sister, in honor of Jones graduating from the sixth grade at her school in the Philippines. Little did they know, Jones would later receive multiple awards and hold several positions across different business areas in Salt Lake City.

Eunice Jones at the University of Utah.

Jones grew up being the seventh oldest of 11 children, in a very poor family. She was raised in a house that had no running water or electricity, and had to boil water before being able to drink it.

“Food was very, very sparse,” Jones said. “I never saw frozen food until I came to America.”

At a young age Jones started working for money. She would clean her grandparent’s house every weekend for 25 cents. She went on to start selling bags of salt for 25 cents and 50 cents at the local market. And during summer school Jones sold bags of fried dough dipped in sugar to her classmates.

Jones saved up her hard earned money in a piggy bank. And at the end of the summer she had enough money to buy school supplies for her siblings and herself.

“My parents could not give us anything but education,” Jones said.

Jones’ three older brothers and her older sister moved to Manila, Philippines, on scholarships. They gave all of their incomes to Jones’ parents, which eventually brought the rest of her family to live with them in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, in Manila.

“Life changed when I went to Manila,” Jones said. For the first time in her life, Jones’ family had running water, television, electricity and public transportation to get to school.

Jones’ sister sent her through college in Manila. She graduated in the top-10 of her class and was given an apprenticeship at a local press.

Jones later became the single mother of two children. And in 1986, the Los Angeles Hyatt offered Jones a working visa. She left her sons with family and had to leave the Philippines within 30 days of the Hyatt’s offer.

“I only had a suitcase, $50 in my pocket and a dream,” Jones said.

Jones worked for the Los Angeles Hyatt for three years before being able to obtain visas for her two young sons. In 1989, Jones went home to bring her children to live in Las Vegas, where she was working at the Hilton.

Jones got married in 1993 to Blake Jones and two years later the family moved to Utah. Eunice Jones got a job at the Salt Lake City Hilton, where the family lived in the general manager’s suite for two months before buying a house.

“When we lived in the Hilton, it was weird because everyone was cleaning our room,” said A.J. Jones, Eunice Jones’ 24-year-old son.

After Eunice Jones had worked for the Hilton for one year, she said that her work was not challenging and decided to change her career.

She started attending real estate school at night and graduated in 1996. She began working seven days a week as a Realtor. And one year later, Eunice Jones received the Rookie of the Year Honor in real estate.

“If you meet 10 people everyday, you will grow your database,” Eunice Jones said. “My production just started to rise.”

Eunice and Blake Jones opened their own Re/Max office in 2003. They opened it with one Realtor and it grew to be 70 Realtors and independent contractors, before the market crashed.

In addition to her work as a real estate agent, Eunice Jones also plays a large role in the Asian community of Utah. She was the first women president of the Philippine-American Association during her 1999-2001 terms. And she is a co-founder of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce.

“I am so honored and happy to be part of this community,” Eunice Jones said.

Jones is currently serving on the Asian Advisory Council and recently gathered members of the community to start a dance group that performs traditional Filipino dancing. Her hope is that it will help keep the culture alive for the different generations of Filipinos who are in Utah.

“She just does it to help people out,” A.J. Jones said. “It is very honorable work that she does.”

Eunice Jones would like to retire from real estate in ten years. Her goal is to buy land in the Philippines so she could live there six months out of the year. “She moved here just for my brother and I. She misses her life and she sacrificed a lot for us,” A.J. Jones said, in support of his mother’s dream of returning home.

American dream true for Utah woman who went from poverty to community leader

Eunice Jones speaks with University of Utah journalism students about her life.

Story and photo by DANA IGO

As a child growing up poor in the Philippines, Eunice Jones paid for school supplies by selling fried dough rolled in sugar to the local townspeople.

Now Jones, 51, sells properties as an associate broker of a Re/Max Masters franchise in Salt Lake City.

How she moved from living in a hut in a seaside village to living in Utah as a distinguished member of the community is a true story of success that begins at her roots.

“My parents always told us that they could not give us anything but education,” Jones said.

As the seventh of 11 children, she was used to feeling hungry and going to school barefoot. Her family’s home had no electricity or running water and she often did school work by the dim light of a gas lamp. Yet her parents made sure she and her siblings studied hard and went to school every day.

Her parents’ strong emphasis on education pushed Jones to excel and in 1980 she graduated in the top-10 of her class at the University of Manila with a degree in marketing.

In 1986 she was offered an opportunity to work in the United States as a catering manager at the former Hyatt Wilshire in Los Angeles.

Jones, a single mother, had to leave her sons, Thomas, 2, and Andrew, 2 months, with her mother and sister in order to move to the U.S.

Even though she had to part with her children, the chance to come to America was something she couldn’t refuse. With the help of her friends and family, she scraped together the money for airfare and got on a plane to California.

“I only had a suitcase, $50 in my pocket and a dream of a better life,” Jones said about her arrival in the U.S.

Los Angeles was like nothing she’d experienced before. She saw a washing machine for the first time. Her friend’s mother had to help her figure out how to use it and it didn’t turn out well – ­ all of her clothes shrank. Until she got her first paycheck, Jones had to borrow everything from friends.

She moved to Las Vegas to work at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1989. It was there that she felt secure enough in her job and situation that she obtained visas to bring her sons from the Philippines to join her.

In 1995 Jones remarried and moved to Utah with her new husband and children. She was hired by the Salt Lake City Hilton, but the work wasn’t challenging so she took real estate classes at night in order to switch careers. A year later she received the Better Homes & Gardens Rookie of the Year award. She opened her own Re/Max franchise in 2003.

When she and her husband divorced in 2009 she sold her franchise to Re/MAX Masters, where she now works as an associate broker.

Aside from real estate, Jones also devoted considerable time and energy to the Asian community of Utah.

She is a leader in the Utah Filipino community and organizes the Utah Asian Festival. In 2005 Jones and Judge Raymond Uno founded the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, which helps bring Asian businesses together throughout the state. Jones is also head of the Asian Advisory Council, which is a part of the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs.

Jones’ story is a testament to the American dream and she has no regrets about coming to the U.S.

“My lifestyle [in the Philippines] was not as free as it is now,” she said.

Her son, Andrew “A.J.” Jones, 24, feels the same way. He has visited the Philippines twice with his mother and says it was a humbling experience.

“It was definitely a culture shock for me to see 12 people living in a small home, or in their shop/home on the side of the road,” he said.

A.J., who is currently working on a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Utah, also attributes who he is today to his mother. In high school, when he wanted to play sports, his mother would tell him grades came first. Now he balances sports and school as a Little League coach at Olympus High School. He says his mother set the example for making education his focus.

“She has taught me to be very passionate and to want something,” he said. “She wanted a better life for us and she knew this was the only way.”