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Former Vietnamese Refugee Dedicates Life to Helping Others

Having survived the horrors of war, endured sexual assaults in a refugee camp, and battled with depression, Suzie Dong-Matsuda found strength and courage in her work as a psychologist.

Phones are ringing off the hook in this whirlwind of an office at a government mental health clinic in Orange County.  At the center of the hustle and bustle is a soft-spoken woman with long jet-black hair who tends to every call with such genuine care and dedication, you would think the caller on the other end of the line is the most important person in the world.  It is exactly this type of personal attention that makes Suzie Dong-Matsuda great at what she does.

The service chief of the Asian Pacific division of the Orange County Health Care Agency's Adult Mental Health Services program, Suzie, 44, understands that mental health issues are a taboo in the Vietnamese community of which she and most of her clients are members.  So you are more likely to hear her talk about a person’s struggle rather than illness.  Her innovative healing methods take into account an individual's culture, history, and experiences.

Suzie is no stranger to struggle.  But nothing compared to what happened on April 30, 1975, when Suzie and her family's life as they knew it was turned upside down.  The communists from North Vietnam took over the South and arrested her stepfather, who had served in the South Army of the Republic of Vietnam.  The communist police started harassing her family, ordered her mother into forced labor, and drafted her brother into the military as soon as he turned 18.  Said Suzie, "The local police used to enter my home with guns and without advance notice to look for my brother."

In just a few years, Suzie's family went from being middle class to practically homeless. They had to split up and stay with friends and relatives.  In 1983, at the age of 17, Suzie fled Vietnam.  She would not see her parents for another 10 years.  And it would take nearly a quarter century before she would see her brother again.

Suzie traveled from Saigon to Ba Ria on the coast, from where she took a fishing boat with a group of others trying to flee Vietnam.  "I remembered vomiting until nothing was left and seeing others experiencing the same," recalled Suzie.  "We vomited on each other."

The 70 some passengers sailed for four days and three nights hiding at the bottom of the boat, subsisting on rice soup and water--except on the last day when they ran out of both.  Hungry, dehydrated, and gasping for air in the stuffy boat compartment, Suzie barely made it to the upper deck when she lost consciousness near the edge of the boat.  "When I recovered, I was told that no one knew who I was with and that I almost fell off the boat," she remembered.  "Someone pulled me back in."

After crossing the border to Indonesia, Suzie found shelter at Galang refugee camp.  Though she escaped the horrors of war, a different type of violence awaited her at the camp. Fortunately, after a year in Galang, Suzie resettled in Garden Grove, California.

Adjustment to life in America was not easy.  Still a teenager, Suzie felt lost during her first years in the United States.  She was haunted by memories of the violence she experienced, and suffered from poor self image and loss of identity.  “I felt lonely and depressed for quite some time to the point I wanted to commit suicide," she said of her early years in America.  "It took me at least seven years to feel comfortable in my own skin again."

But soon enough, Suzie regained her confidence and drive and proceeded to obtain a doctorate degree in psychology and became a licensed clinical social worker.  Driven by her own past, she has dedicated her career to helping fellow Vietnamese and others struggling with trauma.  "Because of what I went through, I want to bring healing to myself and to others," said the happily married mother to an 11-year-old boy.  "I want to create meaning out of my own experience and be there for others."

Years after Suzie's escape, her stepfather was released from the prison camp and together with her mother fled Vietnam by boat.  The two lived in a refugee camp in Hong Kong and eventually resettled in the United States.  Suzie was also able to sponsor her brother and his family to join them in America.

Despite the happy ending, the memories of pain and suffering remain fresh in Suzie's mind.  But she would not exchange her past for anything because it has helped shape who she is today.  "These experiences for better or for worse have given me a deeper sense of pain, joy, love, and compassion," said Suzie, who visited Vietnam in 2003, the first time after her flight.  "My path definitely has influenced my choices in life, my career, people I want to be with, my volunteer work, and life purpose."

Her hope for the people of Vietnam? "I wish for every single Vietnamese in Vietnam to experience the rights and freedom I have here in America."

Photo: Suzie and her 11-year-old son take a stroll in their adopted hometown of Garden Grove, CA.

You can help ensure that more refugees, like Suzie, have a chance for a better tomorrow.  Take the Stand with a Refugee Pledge >>

Read more personal accounts of struggle for survival from refugees from all parts of the globe>>

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