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Former refugee grateful for every moment in Canada

Vietnam War refugee and RCMP employee Eric Pham returned to Alberta earlier this year to visit some of the people who helped his family settle in Canada in 1979. Credit: RCMP

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Eric Pham's harrowing escape from Vietnam 40 years ago shaped his approach to life, work and living with gratitude.

"The refugee experience taught me to notice the kindness of others but also to remain strong," says Pham, who used that resilience to adapt to his new life in southern Alberta as a teenager.

Pham now works in the Chief Information Officer section of the RCMP, but says he always dreamed about policing when he was young boy in Saigon.

Growing up under the cloud of war derailed those plans but thriving in a new country set him on a course to the RCMP.

"Facing any challenge, you have to remain positive. It's the only way you can overcome," says Pham, who pledged to follow that philosophy as he fled his war-torn homeland with his parents and sisters.

Escaping and starting over

The Phams' journey began in 1979 when they spent seven days sailing across the South China Sea on a boat with hundreds to find sanctuary in Malaysia.

After a few months in the Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp, which became one of the most crowded places on Earth during the Vietnam War, the Phams made their way to southern Alberta.

"The first year was very difficult, says Pham. "You're in a new country starting all over again and you have to learn a new language."

Pham credits the Maranatha Christian Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alta., with easing his family's move. Joe and Joanna Barthel were part of that effort.

Joe did a lot of the pre-arrival work: filling out forms, finding housing and visiting immigration offices. Joanna helped with everything from shopping for clothes to obtaining social insurance numbers.

"It was busy," says Joe, who worked nights and weekends on the Phams' arrival. "But it was satisfying knowing we were helping them get ready for life in Canada."

Being grateful

Pham returned to Alberta last spring to visit the Barthels and other church members.

"It was a little bit emotional, says Pham. "People seemed surprised to see me but I was grateful to see them. I just kept saying thank you for your passion to help and look after us."

Because of that support, Pham successfully transitioned to life in the small town of Coaldale, Alta. Eventually, he made his way to Edmonton where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alberta.

He later put that degree to use in Ottawa's technology industry. When that sector began to collapse in the early 2000s, Pham found himself unemployed with a young family to help support.

"Being laid off from a job is another emotionally fraught experience anybody can go through. But I have managed to overcome," says Pham.

He landed at the RCMP in 2004 after being hired as a technical planning analyst in the Procurement and Contract Group.

"It has fulfilled my dream to be part of this great organization," says Pham.

He says he continues to be inspired to work for the RCMP.

"When I feel down or upset, I just think about the sacrifice our police officers make, and what I saw so many years ago and my life today. My life is good in Canada."

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