Mom and dad at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, 1981
When my parents came to the US as political refugees, they came with visions of New York City. All they knew of America was what they’d seen in the movies: Times Square, flashing lights, buildings so tall they touched the sky.
So you can imagine their surprise when they ended up in Olympia, Washington.
It’s not exactly how they pictured the “American Dream.” But 37 years later, my parents are still here. And to them, the life they lead in Olympia absolutely is the American Dream.
My parents in West Olympia, 1978
My parents arrived with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. And within six years, they:
- Learned English
- Went to college
- Secured good jobs
- Got married
- Had two kids
- Became US citizens
- Bought their first house
Sweet jeebus, I’m 35 and I still don’t own a house! (Nor can I find anyone to marry me, but that’s a whole ‘nother story, LOL.)
Granted, these were different times. Different times indeed, but more importantly, my parents had a little help.
Actually, they had a lot of help. They had Fern Powers.
Fern Powers, 2015
Fern Powers gave them clothes, she drove them to their English classes, she arranged to get them medical care, she got them settled into an apartment. She did this for my parents, my parents’ friends, my aunt and uncle, my cousins…
Fern Powers did this for thousands of refugees in the Olympia area.
Who is this remarkable woman? Fern will humbly tell you she’s just a lil ol’ lady doing God’s work. But to refugees like my parents, she’s an angel.
It all started in 1975 when then-Governor Dan Evans urged Washingtonians to sponsor and provide moral support to refugees who had nowhere else to go.
The state’s resettlement program was in full swing and, in addition to federal aid, it relied on the generosity of citizens, businesses and organizations.
Fern Powers, a part-time school bus driver at the time, heard the governor’s call and took action immediately. With the help of the First Baptist Church of Lacey, she spearheaded an effort that would provide aid to many, many refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Fern at my parents’ humble wedding, 1979
She helped so many refugees throughout the years, Fern sometimes opted to move into a motor home in the driveway so she could make room for them in her own house!
Refugees were always welcome in Fern’s home, and she provided just about everything they needed to start their new lives in the US.
- She got them in touch with refugee services at the Department of Social and Health Services.
- She made doctor’s and dentist’s appointments.
- She collected, sorted and distributed donated goods from her church.
- She organized English classes and arranged for transportation to and from.
- She helped them find jobs.
Fern worked tirelessly to make the transition as easy as possible for all refugees. She got support from her church as well as earlier Vietnamese refugees who’d already settled in, such as Bà Sa and Bác Kính, who could speak English and provide assistance to newer refugees.
Refugees at the First Baptist Church of Lacey
Fern’s own backyard chicken coop, she converted into a donation center filled with secondhand clothes, shoes and other goods from her church.
Fern and a sponsored refugee in the chicken-coop-turned-refugee-donation center
If Fern wasn’t housing refugees in her own home, she was helping secure affordable housing for them elsewhere. My parents were among the lucky who were set up with apartments before they’d even set foot on American soil.
In fact, after my parents, aunt, uncle and cousins left their refugee camp in Malaysia and arrived at the Sea-Tac Airport with no idea what awaited them, they were picked up and driven straight to their own apartments!
The apartment complex was called Woodland Green (now Central Park Villa), and was located on Olympia’s west side on Cooper Point Road (just up the hill from today’s Trader Joe’s).
My parents’ first apartment, and the first time they ever saw snow, 1978
Fern and her church had arranged to rent several apartment units, even furnishing some of them with secondhand furniture and kitchenware. It was so exciting! My parents’ first home in America! Fern personally helped them settle in and, throughout the following months, came over frequently to bring additional donated items to help them start their new lives.
Fern gave my parents – and so many other refugees – the best possible start to their “American Dream” in Olympia. Here are some photos from my parents’ early years in America.
My parents’ first time to the Washington State Capitol Campus (WWI monument), 1978
Dad (right) and his best friend Long at their first apartment, 1978
Dad’s first car: a hand-me-down ’68 Toyota Corona from Uncle Tuoi, 1978
(The reverse was broken, which required some creativity when it came to parking the car!)
Mom (second from left) with friends, 1979
Dad looking very cool, 1979 (we still have that old lamp!)
Their first child (me!), born 1979
Mom and me on our first family roadtrip, the day Mount St. Helen’s erupted, 1980
My first birthday, 1980
Me at our Woodland Green apartment, 1981
My parents outside our second apartment, Evergreen Village, 1981
Mom and me at the Seattle Center Mural Amphitheater, 1981
Mom and her girlfriends on my 2nd birthday, 1981
My parents and me at Capitol Lake, 1982
Me at the Evergreen State College campus, 1982
Dad at his first state job at Employment Security, 1983
My parents fell in love with Olympia, and quickly became independent after Fern’s initial sponsorship.
They went on to become IT professionals for the state, put both my sister and me through college (out of pocket!), remain active in the local community and will retire comfortably in just a couple years.
My parents, camping at Birch Bay, 1998
From nothing! They came to Olympia with nothing.
Indeed, federal aid and state assistance for such resettlement programs at the time were a huge blessing. It was the human touch, however, that made my parents’ experience so seamless and wonderful. And they have Fern Powers to thank for that. She made it her personal mission to take care of each and every refugee that came her way.
Fern Powers (center) and my parents, 2015
If you know a Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian person in Thurston County, there’s a good chance they or someone in their family have been impacted by this amazing woman.
Although many of the refugees sponsored by Fern have re-located to other parts of the country, there remains a solid community of roughly 2,000 Vietnamese people in Thurston County.
- Fern has since gone on to sponsor refugees from all over the world, including Ukraine, Romania and Somalia.
- She’s traveled to help in the disaster relief efforts for 9/11, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
- Today, she is devoted to rehabilitating addicts at a SAFE house in Chehalis.
The woman never stops!
Recently, Fern was recognized for her refugee work at a special event in Seattle attended by former Governor Dan Evans and former Secretary of State Ralph Munro:
Fern Powers with former Governor Dan Evans, 2015
Fern Powers with former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, 2015
Humble Fern is not accustomed to the spotlight, nor does she seem to want it in any way. But this particular event in this particularly esteemed company was quite fitting. It was the appeal of these two historical leaders that inspired Fern to personally change so many people’s lives back in 1975. And she hasn’t stopped since. She is well-deserving of the recognition.
Thank you, Fern Powers, for helping my parents and so many others live the American Dream!
Were you or someone you know sponsored to Olympia, Washington by Fern Powers?
Please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or share your story in the comments section below.