Tran Van Ca
With only as much as they could carry on their backs, Tran Van Ca and his wife Kim fled Saigon on April 30,1975. Throughout the Vietnam War, Ca had applied his natural talent for languages working as a interpreter for the U.S. Marines and for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). As South Vietnam fell to the advancing North Vietnamese Army, he and Kim escaped on one of the last boats to make it out of the country.
Within days after arriving in the US, Ca secured a janitor job at the Springfield Mall in suburban Washington, DC, for $2 per hour. When the mall closed for the night, Ca and Kim hid in a narrow freight corridor and slept on the floor. Soon after, Ca found a job at a Mexican restaurant in the mall, and later Kim was hired at a different location. They worked long hours and weeks without a day off to save money and start their own Mexican restaurant. As restaurant owners, Ca and Kim earned more in a day than they did in weeks of working at the mall restaurant. Through hard work and determination, Ca and Kim acquired four Mexican-American restaurants over fifteen years, eventually buying a fine home in suburban northern Virginia. Of those times, Ca says: “For 15 years all I did was work, with no vacations. If I stopped working, I would start remembering our many losses in Vietnam. It was a long time of painful nightmares and frustration, because there seemed to be nothing I could do to help.”
Ca returned to Vietnam for the first time in November 1990, to visit his ailing father. The extent of the suffering that he saw in Vietnam overwhelmed him. He now recalls: “I realized it wasn’t just my family; it was the whole country. I saw veterans who had lost their legs during the war or after from landmines pushing themselves along the streets on pieces of cardboard, some with open wounds, begging for handouts, just to stay alive. Villagers in my Central Vietnam town were starving. Right there and then, I decided that I must find a way to help.” In 1991, Ca and Kim established a small nonprofit charity organization – the Vietnam Assistance for the Handclapped (VNAH) – with the help of a Vietnamese American lawyer friend. With their own money, they purchased artificial limbs and medicines for ARVN amputees who so desperately needed help.
From 1991 to 2023, VNAH generated a total of more than $42 Million in funding from the U.S. and Japanese Governments, as well as private foundations and individuals. Ca has encouraged and assisted the development of Vietnam’s private wheelchair manufacturing sector with factories that produce high-quality, low-cost chairs specifically designed for conditions in Vietnam. As a natural follow-on to the provision of prosthetics and other devices to restore mobility, Ca and his teams have designed and supported counseling, job placement, on-the-job and apprenticeship training programs to assist in securing employment. Over 90,000 mobility-impaired Vietnamese have been given assistive devices and wheelchairs, enabling them to become independent and productive members of society. Ca’s VNAH program has made special efforts to serve the rural poor having limited capacity to travel to urban-based rehabilitation centers for free assistance directly in their own communities.
During his early visits to Vietnam, Ca was especially moved by the plight of the
displaced and severely disadvantaged children. In response to their needs, in 1993 Ca established the sister organization to VNAH: Health and Education Volunteers (HealthEd). HealthEd’s primary objective is to address the needs of ethnic minority and displaced children and to mobilize the young Vietnamese-American generation in the United States to join his efforts. Later Ca helped coordinate a multi-million-dollar airlift into Vietnam with donated resources to build elementary schools and vocational training buildings and to establish clinics and training for prosthetics and medical technicians. With resources mobilized from large Japanese foundations and from private companies and organizations in the U.S., more than 150 schools, 29 rehabilitation centers, and 5 vocational training schools have been built in the Central and Northern Highlands of Vietnam. He also helped organize several exchange visits for delegations between the U.S., Japan, and Vietnam that included U.S. Congressional delegations, veterans service group leaders, government and former military officials, and heads of corporations. For all these efforts, in 2007 Japan’s Foundation for the Encouragement of Social Contribution awarded Ca a prestigious Humanitarian Award.
Over time, Ca recognized that national laws and policies would have to be enacted and implemented if people with disabilities in Viet Nam were to have real opportunities for rewarding jobs and full inclusion in the social life of their communities. He knew that this would require a Vietnamese national disability law, barrier-free access codes and standards and strong non-governmental groups of people with disabilities to voice the needs and priorities of the disabled community. Largely as a result of Ca’s urging and technical assistance provided through VNAH, the Government of Vietnam has enacted and is now implementing a National Law on Disability based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. It has also adopted Barrier-Free Access Codes and Standards and developed curriculums for rehabilitation to help ensure that people with disabilities will have full access and use of public buildings and all transportation systems. Across Vietnam, groups of people with disabilities have come together to share experiences, help meet their collective needs, and present their views and demands to the government.
As Ca became more focused on alleviating the suffering of people in Vietnam, there were consequences for him and his family in the U.S. From the start, Ca had to walk a tightrope between conflicting values and priorities in both countries. Authorities in Vietnam were initially suspicious that Ca intended to undermine their communist government. He was harassed when traveling in Vietnam and was detained several times there by the police. At the same time, members of the conservative Vietnamese-American community in the United States saw Ca’s efforts as propping up and supporting Hanoi’s regime. He and his family in the U.S. received death threats and two of his businesses were vandalized. At times, Ca and his family had to be placed under local police and other federal professional protection.
Nevertheless, Ca has remained active and optimistic. He imagines a future day when
Vietnam will be an ally with the U.S. Seeing that things are getting better in Vietnam, he says: “I love America. It has given me a second chance for a good life. It enabled me to acquire and gather resources for my family and to reach back and help the less fortunate in Vietnam.”
Ca’s work is a stunning and moving example of U.S.-based efforts to help ease the pain of those who have suffered the unintended consequences of U.S. political and military operations overseas. Ca’s life illustrates how the actions of a few very committed and determined individuals can be a catalyst for enormous change. U.S.- Vietnam relations are better because of the work begun by Ca and Kim and carried forward by the teams Ca has led. Their efforts have helped change the way Vietnam views its responsibilities to its citizens with disabilities and the value placed on their quality of life and productivity. The work of VNAH, HealthED and other initiatives led or supported by Ca has reverberated far beyond Vietnam and served as models for nonprofit organizations and nations around the world.
America is stronger and better because of this one immigrant refugee who has worked with such dedication, inspiring so many others in rebuilding cooperation, even with those we once considered enemies. It is for his inspiring and reconciling work in selfless service to citizens with disabilities in his beloved Vietnam that we nominate Tran Van Ca for the President’s Volunteer Service Award.