Without her parents, Chau Pham left Vietnam in 1983 at the age of five. That difficult time had a great impact on Chau Pham’s life. “It has made me the person that I am today and provided me with the perseverance to overcome life’s challenges,” she explained. After two years in the refugee camp in Thailand, she went to Manitoba and was adopted by a Canadian mother. She dreamed of becoming a doctor. Dr. Pham studied medicine at the University of Manitoba and then completed extended ultrasound training. Today she is the ultrasound director at the university’s Department of Emergency Medicine. When asked for advice about achieving happiness, Dr. Pham replied, “My secret is to live with intention and give to others.”
What made you want to become a doctor?
I knew very early that I wanted to become a doctor. Since tuberculosis is highly contagious, I was isolated from other families and children in the refugee camp and that was very difficult. Parents refused to let their children play with me. The doctor, however, was very kind and treated me each day for two years. Finally, when I was cleared of TB, the doctor assured the Government of Canada that I was no longer contagious and should be admitted to Canada with my young auntie. To this day I remember that doctor’s compassion, medical knowledge, and skill that gave me a new bill of health and allowed me to be admitted to Canada. I knew then that wanted to help others just as the doctors in the refugee camp had given me a new chance at life. Today I am a physician, and I am proud to serve the people of Manitoba and to lead an international charity that works to improve medical knowledge, skills, facilities, education and living conditions in Vietnam.
Do you keep any Vietnamese traditions at home? Can you speak Vietnamese?
My Canadian mother could not speak Vietnamese, but three-and-a-half years after I arrived in Winnipeg, she persuaded the Government of Canada to let her sponsor my parents (an exception to sponsorship rules because she was not a member of our family). In November of 1989, my parents and two little brothers arrived in Winnipeg. My Canadian Mom, as their sponsor, was responsible for their settlement in Canada for 10 years. We lived together in a small bungalow and my parents prepared Vietnamese food which I love to this day. My Vietnamese language skills had disintegrated over the years so I attended Vietnamese school on the weekends. I was able to excel with my reading and writing, and received a university credit. As my Vietnamese language skills grew so did my traditional Vietnamese culture, holidays and practises. I was Youth Ambassador for the Vietnamese Pavilion at Folklorama in its early years. I became very proud of many wonderful Vietnamese traditions especially the Tet Festival (New Year) and memorial dinners to honour my grandparents and ancestors. Since my parents and brothers now lived with my Canadian mother Darlene, we all learned Vietnamese and loved the cuisine, music history and language. The one tradition that I will always carry with me and that I try to pass on to my boys is to honour and respect your elders and family. The heart of Vietnamese tradition is the bond of family. I’ll always remember my parent’s sacrifice so that I could have a better future.
What made you want to start Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam? Why do you want to help children specifically?
When I return to Vietnam in 1993 I found incredible poverty, terrible housing, lack of schools and overcrowding with 50 students in a single room. Seeing all the unfortunate children selling lottery tickets on the street, or physically handicapped children begging, made me realize that if it was not for my parent’s sacrifice, I could have been one of these children in the aftermath of the war, struggling without an education or humane living conditions. Our charity wants to help children first and foremost because with education and better health, they can improve the quality of their lives in the future. The people of Vietnam were born into a country with incredible shortages of everything and it is difficult for children there to dream about what they want to be when they grow up if they need to focus on becoming healthy enough to reach adulthood. If we can help these children grow into healthy and educated adults, the reward for them, and for us, will be the contributions they will someday make to the communities from which they came.
In an article on cbc.com earlier this year, you stated, “Growing up with my adopted mom and my biological family gave new meaning to the phrase ‘modern family unit.’ “Can you explain?
I have my adopted mom and her parents and siblings, my biological family who used to live with us and are now living close by, my husband’s parents and all their family, plus countless aunts and uncles and cousins. They all give new meaning to the phrase ‘modern family unit.’ My auntie who accompanied me to Canada was my third mom and she had her own daughter who grew up with me. My cousin and I are like sisters. In some bizarre way, I have also become a surrogate mom to her. I helped shape her aspirations to get into medicine and she is now a family physician in Edmonton. Today, families take all shapes and forms. I firmly believe that children are not born from the womb but from the heart. How lucky I am to have been blessed with three wonderful women who have all played a part in giving me life and a re-birth at different points in my life.
Do you have any message for young people to encourage them to give back to society?
Young people, wherever they are on this planet, can do much to help others while also feeling much satisfaction. My secret to happiness is to live with intention and in giving to others. I believe that wherever we serve, we can do a great deal to raise the quality of life and to fill lives with the promise of a better tomorrow.
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