When Chinh Doan and her mother, Tu Tran, stepped off an airplane arm-in-arm Monday night in Oklahoma City, a joyful group of friends and family was there to greet the pair.
They were celebrating the conclusion of a heart-wrenching journey of thousands of miles, countless tears and almost 18 years.
Doan, 22, and her mother will spend this Mother's Day together, finally, after having lived half a world apart for nearly two decades. Doan moved to the United States with her father 18 years ago; after spending so many years trying to reunite his family, he, too, was waiting at the airport in Oklahoma City to greet his wife and daughter.
“You know when you dream something for so long, when your dream is so big that when it finally gets realized, you actually can't believe that it's realized,” Doan said. “It's been unreal. It's indescribable, really.”
Doan is used to telling other people's stories. This weekend, the Vietnamese-American woman will celebrate graduation from the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication with a degree in broadcast journalism.
Doan hopes her own story will inspire others who have a dream that seems bigger than their ability to see it to fruition.
The saga began in Vietnam in 1994, when Doan was 4 and her father, Hoan Doan, was granted permission to move to America through the Humanitarian Operation program.
Hoan Doan had served in the South Vietnamese military for 15 years and helped the United States' military efforts during the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon, he was forced into a prison camp. Because he was a prisoner of war and he helped the United States, he was granted asylum to America.
Hoan Doan was allowed to bring only his daughter with him to America. Because of the family's complicated history, he had to leave behind his wife and his six children from a previous marriage.
Tran also previously had been married and had three children from that marriage (only one survives today). She was widowed when her first husband died at sea while fleeing the war. His death couldn't be proven, and this made the U.S. government question the validity of Tran's subsequent marriage to Hoan Doan.
With heavy hearts, father and daughter said goodbye to their family in Vietnam and came to Oklahoma City, where Catholic Charities found them a sponsor.
Trying to bring Tran to America to join her daughter and husband soon became a paperwork nightmare that seemed never-ending.
“We didn't expect for it to take so long,” Chinh Doan said during a recent interview with her mother and father at her side.
At first, it seemed as simple as renewing the couple's marriage certificate to satisfy government red tape. Then they were told Hoan Doan would have to attain U.S. citizenship and have financial assets in order to sponsor Tran in America.
So Hoan Doan went to work, diligently trying to save money and gain citizenship, which would take at least five years, he thought.
One of his first jobs in America was as a janitor at The Oklahoman. Neither he nor his daughter spoke English, but Chinh Doan was immensely proud of her father, who she thought was a journalist for the newspaper.
“I told all my friends in the neighborhood that my father worked for the state's largest newspaper,” she said. “And he brings home his work every day.”
He did bring home his work — in the form of scraps of the newspaper that he couldn't bear to throw away.
It was from these scraps of the newspaper that Chinh Doan learned to read English, she said.
Her father's attempts to save money were thwarted when he had an accident, rendering him disabled. He could no longer work. He never became a citizen and couldn't afford to take care of himself and Chinh Doan, much less to qualify to sponsor his wife.
“It's been very hard being without my wife because I longed for a companion and someone to take care of my daughter,” he said in Vietnamese, translated by his daughter. “It was hard to live as if I were single for 18 years.”
As a result of her father's disability, at the age of 10, Chinh Doan moved in with a school friend's family. When that family moved out of state, Chinh Doan lived with her Sunday school teacher, Donna Wyskup, who accepted her as a daughter.
Wyskup would become Chinh Doan's “American mommy” and see her through high school, winning scholarships and grants that paid for her college education, and encouraging her to follow her dreams, no matter how difficult they seemed.
Wyskup, who had no children of her own, told Chinh Doan, “Jesus had saved room in my heart because He knew you were going to come along,” according to story written by Chinh Doan about her journey and distributed by friends.
Hard work pays off
When Chinh Doan turned 18, she became a naturalized citizen but would have to wait until age 21 to qualify to sponsor her mother. Unfortunately, at 21, her status as a student prevented her sponsorship eligibility.
Finally, in April, after 18 years of unsuccessful efforts to bring her mother to America, Chinh Doan's hard work paid off.
She was approved to sponsor her mother, just in time for her graduation and Mother's Day.
Last week, Chinh Doan flew to Vietnam to help her mother say goodbye to her family there.
Mother and daughter boarded a plane leaving Tan Son Nhat International Airport that would deliver them to their new life together in Oklahoma City.
“Her dreams and aspirations are for me to graduate and find a good job that makes me happy,” Chinh Doan said, translating the sentiments of her mother.
“And she really wants me to live nearby. That's her dream, for me to live nearby, so that way, after work every day, I can come home or at least visit them. She wants to make me dinner and take care of me and nurture me and make up for 18 years.”
Chinh Doan said she realizes her dream of reuniting her family didn't come without the help of many caring people, much determination and many, many prayers.
“I don't like to take the credit for it because no one person could do this by themselves,” she said.
Chinh Doan said she is sharing her family's story in hopes that it will inspire others who may be working toward a similarly lofty dream.
“Maybe it's OK that I step back from my usual role (as a journalist) and share a little bit of me if I think it's going to help someone,” she said. “I have proven that some dreams are really big, it's true, but that doesn't mean that the dream is impossible.
“With patience and determination and a lot of encouragement and help from family and friends and lots of prayers, anything is possible.”