Daniel Do-Khanh ’93 has come a long way since he and his parents fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in April 1975, leaving behind their home and all of their belongings. Today he’s a successful attorney working out of a spacious Irvine office with a sweeping view of the Orange County coast, but Do-Khanh has not forgotten what his family endured to get here — and he doesn’t want the experiences of other Vietnamese refugees to be forgotten either.
“I grew up hearing their stories of how they were stuck in refugee camps for years, stories of those who made the dangerous trip to the U.S. by boat, stories of those who had nowhere to go,” he says.
“They were stories of loss and war, and every family had them. But there’s been no effort to document them from our elders. There’s been a lot of information on the war but not on the refugees. I want generations to come to understand what happened.”
Thanks to his relationship with UC Irvine, Do-Khanh has found a way to realize his long-held dream of preserving the past. As president of the Vietnamese American Community Ambassadors, a UCI alumni group he helped start three years ago, he’s helped launch the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, a three-year effort to record the accounts of refugees and house them in the UCI Libraries’ Southeast Asian Archive.
“Time is of the essence,” Do-Khanh says. “It’s been 36 years since the fall of South Vietnam. The people who came over to the U.S. in their 40s and 50s are now in their 70s and 80s. With each passing year, the likelihood of capturing their stories becomes less and less.”
He and other VACA members came up with the idea of collaborating with UCI on the oral history project a couple years ago when they were looking for a way to give back to the community and their alma mater.
They found support from many on campus, including Chancellor Michael Drake; Linda Vo, associate professor of Asian American studies; and an anonymous donor who contributed $350,000 for the effort.
“Orange County has the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the nation,” Do-Khanh says. “Many refugees settled here after the war, and a lot of us in the first generation went to UCI. We didn’t go far because we needed to be close to our families, helping out. UCI was our gateway to America. It holds a special place for Vietnamese immigrants.”
Led by Thuy Vo Dang, an Asian American studies postdoctoral fellow, the oral history project aims to gather narratives from 300 Southern California refugees and make them accessible to the public. (They’ll be posted online.) Do-Khanh serves on the advisory board.
“Daniel has played an integral role in helping to get this project off the ground,” Vo Dang says. “His dedication to both the Vietnamese American and UCI communities is clear from the passion he brings to his work bridging the two.”
She’s teaching a course on the Vietnamese American experience this winter and will train students on how to conduct oral history interviews.
“A lot of immigrants are very private. UCI is trustworthy,” Do-Khanh says. “They’ll be comfortable sharing their memories with someone from the university. I’d like to see real stories from everyday people that can shed light on their sacrifices. Those are the gems.”
The accounts will tie in perfectly with the UCI Libraries’ Southeast Asian Archive, he adds. “There’s no other collection like it anywhere. It includes art and writing by refugees,” says Do-Khanh, who’s leading a fundraising initiative to hire an archivist for the materials.
Among the archive’s extensive holdings are photographs, slides and documents from Project Ngoc, a 10-year humanitarian effort that started as a UCI class to raise awareness and support for Vietnamese refugees. Items from the collection will be featured in the spring library exhibit “Hope of Freedom: Project Ngoc’s Decade of Dedication.”
As far as his own story, Do-Khanh is one of the more fortunate refugees: He and his family were among the first to get out when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the North Vietnamese.
“No one believed South Vietnam would fall with U.S. involvement,” Do-Khanh says. “When it did, it was so sudden. People stormed the embassy. They fled with nothing.”
His grandmother owned a hotel where Americans lived and received early warning of the defeat, so the family was more prepared than most. Do-Khanh’s father was in the military and escaped by ship. He and his mother were transported by a war plane, and the family settled in Orange County.
Those who stayed faced persecution, harsh labor and death. The lucky ones in the second wave of refugees escaped by making the arduous trek across the border to Cambodia or Laos or finding passage by boat.
“Hundreds were packed in small vessels,” Do-Khanh says. “The boats often capsized. The refugees were prey to sea pirates, who knew they were carrying smaller items of value. They faced dire circumstances.”
He imagines how different his life would be if he’d been left behind. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had. It was just sheer luck,” he says.
Since coming to Orange County, Do-Khanh has lived every immigrant’s dream. He earned a bachelor’s in political science from UCI in 1993 and his J.D. from Loyola Law School Los Angeles in 1996. He’s a business and employment attorney and was the 2003-04 president of the Orange County Asian American Bar Association.
“I’m part of a generation of immigrants who have graduated and moved on to careers,” Do-Khanh says. “We’ve reached a place where we’re saying, ‘I’m very fortunate to have all this.’ Now it’s our time to do something for future generations so they know their heritage.”