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.”