Ex-refugee shows students they can succeed in America

By Hillary Gavan
Beloit Daily News

BELOIT, Wis. (AP) – “You can become.”

It’s a message Robinson Elementary School kindergarten teacher Le Tran imparts to her students not through her words, but by quiet example, said her principal, Sam Carter.

After losing her father to war, escaping the fall of Saigon at age 12, surviving in crowded refugee camps, and struggling to rebuild a life in Beloit, Carter said Le has gone on to show struggling students that they, too, can succeed.

And at Robinson, it’s a much-needed message. Eighty-three percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch programs and 30 percent of them are English Language Learners.

Le said she often relates to her students who may fear for where they will stay that night, where their next meal will come from, or how they can learn a new language.

“At night, I wonder about each one,” Le told the Beloit Daily News. “I’ve been in their shoes, and I understand how they are feeling.”

Like many of her students, Le had a lot to worry about when she was just 5 years old. The little girl from Long Xuyen lost her father when he was shot during his service in the Vietnamese Army, leaving her large family struggling to survive.

Because Le’s mother couldn’t afford to care for her children, she sent some of the older ones to live with and work for other families. At age 12, Le left her birth family to work as a nanny for another family.

Le was babysitting for the new family when the father, whom she called “Uncle,” was the major at a naval base. On April 30, 1975, her new employers were alerted that the Communists were taking over. The family, who now included Le, decided they had to leave immediately. And with the clock ticking, Le was unable to say goodbye to her birth mother and siblings. She had no idea if they would even survive.

As the family of eight, Le, and a driver fled together in a small military Jeep, they were spotted by the Communists, who began shooting at them. The group of 10 raced to one of three ships waiting at the dock and made it aboard. Although the boat waited for higher ranking military officials, as the Communists inched in closer, the ship set sail, leaving many others behind.

Le and at least 500 refugees then languished on the boat for another two weeks, eating only small portions of bread, fish, and rice. After running low on food and water, the refugees resorted to drinking the salt water.

With the boat packed body-to-body and food running out, Le said she didn’t really know where her boat was even headed.

The boat Le was aboard finally was spotted after two weeks at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard near the Philippines. The Coast Guard guided the boat in and sent up the refugees 10 people to a tent. The uncle signed up for a sponsor in America.

“But we had big problem, with 10 people, a lot of places wouldn’t take us,” she said.

So the waiting dragged on for about three months. Without a sponsor, the group was sent to a refugee camp in Guam and eventually to a camp in California. They finally received news that a group of sponsors was waiting for them — families of First Baptist Church of Beloit.

Le’s group of 10 became the first family of Vietnamese people who came to Beloit in 1975. Upon their arrival in Beloit, they lived in a five-bedroom home. Various volunteers with the church took the family grocery shopping, and another Vietnamese woman, Co Weeden of Rockton, helped Le’s family learn to survive in America.

She always remembers her first day as a Hackett Elementary School student, describing herself as painfully shy, “a little mouse getting out of a little hole.” Not knowing English at the time, she was terrified.

But slowly, she started to find her way. She said the uncle found a job at a mattress factory. She had a tutor at Hackett and all the children hovered around her, making her feel loved.

Her tutor was the late Ethel Matthews. Matthews would pick her up every weekend to teach her English.

“I called her grandma,” she said.

Although she was getting more comfortable at school, her home life proved challenging. Because she wasn’t one of her uncle and aunt’s birth children, she said she never truly felt like she was a part of the family. And as she experienced more success, she was saddened by the thought of her mother and siblings back in Vietnam. She had no idea if they were dead or alive for five more years.

Le said if her mother had survived, she didn’t know if she was moved or how to get in contact with her.

“The first three months, I would cry a lot, but I pulled myself together and said, ‘I’m going to do it. I have to make something of myself,’” she said.

Five years after she arrived in Beloit, she finally received the news that she’d been waiting for.

“I came home from school one day and my aunt said she had a letter from my mom. I was stunned,” she said.

From her letters, Le learned that her birth mother was running a small vegetable stand in attempts to support the family. She was relieved to hear her mother was still alive and she was able to start corresponding with her birth family, although the Communist censorship of the letters and travel delays kept their communications at least six months behind.

It was around the time she reconnected with her birth mother that she made other important connections, with Ann Firlus and Edie Porter, math teachers with the School District of Beloit when Le attended Roosevelt Junior High.

Firlus recalled meeting Le in 1978 or 1979, calling her a hardworking and charming child.

“She was just one of those kids that sticks with you,” Firlus said.

Although Le was struggling with word problems in math, she persevered.

“She was just a neat kid,” Ann Firlus said. “We sort of struck up a friendship, and kept in contact all the way through her high school career.”

Firlus said she was struck by how kind, gentle, and happy Le was despite her circumstances.

“I’m grateful that we ended up maintaining a friendship, which developed into something more,” Firlus said.

Le continued to study hard and graduated from high school in 1982. She first pursued a career as a medical assistant after attending Blackhawk Technical College. However, after working at the job for three months, she felt depressed working with sick people and trying to cheer them up.

Le said it was a friend who first encouraged her to consider pursuing a career in education.

“She said, ‘Look at all these people who helped you. Maybe you can return it to the community,’” Le said.

Although Le wanted to give back to the community, she was still struggling to make it. There was one nagging issue left unresolved, her yearning for her biological family.

At age 19, Le was working three part-time jobs. She worked at a toy shop and food store in the former Beloit Mall, and at a laboratory equipment manufacturer. As she struggled to make ends meet, her dream of becoming a teacher seemed ever further out of reach.

It was at this time that she called upon her longtime friend and mentor, Ann Firlus.

Firlus invited Le to stay at her house for a while. It gave the young woman the stability and love she needed to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

Firlus said Le was a good fit for the family and when a family friend told her that adult adoptions are legal in Wisconsin, Firlus and her husband proposed the idea to Le, who eagerly accepted.

“I was so ecstatic. Somebody actually wanted me to be a part of their family at this age. I didn’t have to think about it,” Le said.

“Adults need a family and a sense of belonging to a family,” Firlus said. “We all do.”

In February of 1984, Le Tran became Le Firlus, and finally had an officially recognized family of her own. She stood before a judge with Ann and Bruce Firlus to formalize her becoming a part of the family, a forever commitment.

“Le was aware that there’s no turning back when you form a family. A family was forever,” Firlus said. “She was looking for a family in the U.S. to feel a part of. We were lucky she chose ours to fill that need.”

Firlus said the family celebrated with an open house, inviting everyone the family knew. Le and Ann were side-by-side making egg rolls, their relationship as natural and seamless as ever.

Although their union had become officially recognized, Firlus stressed she always felt Le was a part of her family.

“Somehow Le just fit. We are just so lucky she was willing to formalize that relationship,” Firlus said. “We celebrate the day she came to live with us every year, along with her birthday.”

Once Le had finally found a family, she relaxed a little more, finished her education, and was finally ready to open up her heart to love.

Le graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a degree in teaching and began substitute teaching for the Beloit School District in 1987. After getting familiar with all the schools in the district, she interviewed for a position at Robinson in 1989.

It was during her early teaching days she met Minh Tran, who had escaped Vietnam on a boat with 20 people. Like Le, Minh had fled without his birth parents. Minh’s birth parents had helped build a boat for a family of 10 to escape Vietnam in 1978. In exchange for their work, the boy was able to board the boat, leaving his family in search for a better life. He had encountered pirates at sea, raiding the refugees of their little money and gold. Minh hid his mother’s ring in his mouth, which would later become the meager investment he brought to start his life in Beloit.

It was Firlus and retired math teacher Edie Porter who put Minh and Le on a blind date — a movie in Beloit. Le and Minh married on Aug. 8, 1987.

By 1999, Minh, Le, and their daughters, Samantha and Kimberly, took an emotional trip back to Vietnam, where they met Minh and Le’s birth families in person for the first time since they fled after the fall of Saigon.

Presently, Le is still teaching at Robinson, and feels she is right where she belongs with the kindergartners. She said they love learning and tend to tell the truth.

Le and her two daughters are forever connected to Ann Firlus, as they are family.

“Without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. I want to thank them for all their support,” Le said.

For Firlus, her daughter Le has been a rich addition to her life. And despite what Le’s been through, Ann said she’s never shown any bitterness or pity over it.

“Le’s a terrific woman, and well worth getting to know. She overcame a lot of adversity. She and her husband have experienced a lot in their lives that those of us who are born here can’t really understand or imagine,” Firlus said.

Le said she will likely retire from Robinson, and hopes to continue to guide and comfort her kindergartners. Some of her students have many struggles, they may wonder which relative is picking them up or if they have a safe and secure home to be a part of at the end of the day.
And Le knows just how that feels. (end)

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