By Jay Lee/For CU-CitizenAccess - Anh Ha Ho’s office walls are covered with photographs from all over the world.
Having traveled most of Europe and North America, Ho has lived in cities such as Saigon, Paris, Ho Chi Minh City and Montreal – before settling in Champaign County.
“This is where fate as brought me, and I told myself that I’d be happy wherever I went,” Ho said. “Looking back on it, I consider myself very lucky, and with that, I want to help the people around me.”
The co-director of the Urbana-based East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, Ho puts her international experience to work on a daily basis.
Sitting in the narrow one-room office at the refugee center on a Tuesday morning, the short, 63-year old Ho helps two men from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are applying to gain temporary political asylum. As she is meeting with the two men, Dirjay and Okita, she frequently has to excuse herself to pick up the phone, answering questions from nearby immigrants in English, Spanish, French, German and Vietnamese.
“I know what it’s like to feel out of place and to just want to feel acceptance,” Ho said. “I want to give people the help that I wish I had when I first moved here.”
Speaking to Dirjay and Okita in their native French, Ho explains the upcoming steps in their application process, which will mostly be rooted in paperwork. The men declined to give their last names because they are in the country illegally. After walking the two through their upcoming paperwork, Ho cracks a joke, and the three all burst into laughter.
“She has been so helpful in everything from the paperwork to helping us get access to food and clothes,” Dirjay said. “It’s a delicate situation, and she has our trust.”
After their meeting, Ho will drive them to FedEx Office to help them finish printing their paperwork, before coming back to the office to meet with a family of Spanish-speaking migrant workers.
“With the little things like transportation, she’ll be there for us,” Okita said. “We all feel comfortable around us.”
None of this is a surprise to Deborah Hlavna, the center’s co-director. Having worked with Ho for the last 12 years, Hlavna counts Ho among her closest friends.
“She isn’t a stranger to anyone, and nobody’s a stranger to her,” Hlavna said with a smile. “I don’t think she knows this, but she would have made millions had she gone into sales.”
A long way from Urbana
She will never forget walking out of the airport in 1965, when, at the age of 17, she stepped back into her native Vietnam.
“It was like I had entered a whole new world,” Ho said.
Ho was born in Vietnam in 1947, but with political unrest brewing throughout the country, her parents moved the family to Paris, where Ho remained until she was 18. In 1965, her parents unexpectedly moved the family back to Vietnam.
“I had assumed I was going to be in France for the rest of my life,” Ho said. “Boy, was I in for a change.”
She was familiar with the city names, food and cultural norms – but not Vietnam’s standard of living.
“The hot weather, the mosquitos and the basic things of life – it was definitely a shock for me,” Ho said. “I really experienced the life of a refugee in the change and will never forget that.”
Ho lived in Vietnam for the next two decades, witnessing the Vietnam War first-hand.
“It was a difficult time for all of us,” Ho said. “There’s a reason why a lot of us don’t take things for granted.”
The worst for Ha, though, was the feeling that she was forever an outsider – even in her homeland.
“French was my second language, yet I spoke Vietnamese with a French accent,” Ho said. “All my life, I’ve just been trying to be understood.”
“It took me years to feel the slightest bit of comfort there, and some of my siblings never assimilated,” she added.
She went on to marry a Vietnamese man named Dang Ho, who was a medical student at Saigon University, and the couple would go on to have three daughters – Anh Van, Van Anh, and Yen Vi.
His residency program took the family to Montreal in 1983, and the family moved to Urbana in 1985, where Dr. Ho finished his residency at Carle Foundation Hospital.
The family’s move to North America, Ho said, brought with it a transition to the modern world
“My family hadn’t really experienced this culture, but even for me, I had to get reconnected with the modern world,” Ho said. “It wasn’t an easy time for us.”
After his residency, Dr. Ho struggled to find employment and pay off his student loans, while his wife made $3 an hour as a babysitter.
“There was a time where we really struggled,” Ho said. “We lived a very modest life. My children know the value of money.”
But Dr. Ho was hired at the Christie Clinic in Champaign in 1987, and the Ho family began to adjust to life in Champaign County.
“Little by little, things began to turn around,” Ho said. “And I said all along, as soon as I was in a position to help people, I would.”
A voice within the community
Last November, Ho received a phone call from Mel Farrell with a request.
Farrell, the president of the Urbana Free Library Board of Trustees, asked Ho if she’d be willing to serve on the board.
“I have so much going on as it is, but it’s a great opportunity to help the immigrant population in a bigger way, so I couldn’t turn it down,” Ho said.
The board was looking to fill an open position with someone who could represent Urbana’s growing minority and immigrant populations, and several board members recommended Ho. She was officially appointed in December.
“Both as a professional and as an immigrant herself, she fit exactly what the board was looking for – someone who could be the voice of the minority population for the library,” board member Scott Bennett said. “She has a very strong reputation within the community.”
Ho recently retired from 20 years of working as a French teacher at Martin Luther King Elementary School and a certified translator for Carle Foundation Hospital.
“Recently, there has been more work to do at the center with less funding for it, so it means that we have to put in more work and energy,” Ho said. “I had to stop doing those other jobs to focus on my work here.”
Still, Ho finds time to work as a volunteer translator at Provena Covenant Medical Center and Christie Clinic.
“It’s incredible how much she plugs herself into the community, both in her work and in her volunteer work,” Hlavna said. “She has such incredible passion for people.”
And with her line of work, Ho admits that working with underprivileged, and often times undocumented, immigrants and refugees can get taxing.
“It’s a tough lifestyle – I know, I feel like I’ve been an immigrant all my life,” Ho said. “There won’t always be success, but we can’t lose heart and we have to stay strong.”