Tim Stanley: Over 45 years after Tulsa was there for his family, former Vietnam refugee praises new outreach for Afghans

A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces who served in Afghanistan wants Oklahomans to understand something about the refugees being resettled here.

Unable to carry anything extra with him, H.T. Than made sure he would at least have something to wear. 

“I really layered up. I put on three shirts, two pairs of boxer shorts and a pair of pants,” he said, recalling the day in April 1975 that he and his family fled Saigon.

Just 12 years old at the time, Than would arrive soon after in the U.S.

Bringing little more than the clothes they had on, he and his family were going to need a lot of support to make it.

That’s where Tulsa would come in.

Today, Than, a 1981 Rogers High School graduate, is a successful patent attorney in the Washington, D.C., area, where he’s lived for about 25 years and has his own firm.

I first talked to Than a couple of years ago, and recently I found myself thinking of him again, in light of Oklahoma’s ambitious resettlement effort for Afghan refugees.

That effort — which will include 1,800 refugees overall, and 800 for Tulsa — finds its only real historical comparison in the one that involved Than’s family, when they and other Vietnamese refugees escaped to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. 

As a refugee success story, and an example of what the outcome can be when a community gets involved, Than seemed like a good person to talk to about our present challenge, so I reached out.

Than told me he can’t help feeling for the Afghanis, who likely will come with stories similar to his own, and face similar difficulties ahead.

His first memory of reaching the U.S., he said, was just how good it was to finally feel safe.

“There were no more soldiers shooting, no more artillery shells falling,” he said, recalling the scene in Saigon as his family and others were evacuated by U.S. Marines.

Once in the states, Than’s family, which included his parents and three older siblings, were sent to Tulsa under the care of College Hill Presbyterian Church.

The members sponsored the Thans, providing them a small house they had fixed up for them, and making sure they had all they needed to begin their new lives.

That included pretty much everything, Than said.

Making the transition even more difficult, the family spoke little to no English, he added.

“I remember sitting in a classroom my first day (at Wilson Junior High). Everything was in English and my heart just sank,” he said. “I thought, ‘How am I ever going to pick this up?’” 

Every evening, Than and his sister would pull out a worn Vietnamese-English dictionary and use it to translate their assignments.

“I was the youngest in the family, so I learned English the fastest,” he said.

Watching a lot of PBS children’s shows helped, he said. More important, though, was a woman named Alice who recorded cassette tapes for Than of her reading children’s books.

“It helped me learn to pronounce the words. I could worry about grammar later,” he said.

“I can still hear Alice’s sweet voice clearly in my ears.”

At every step of the way, Tulsans like Alice were there to help, he said.

More than 45 years later, Than no longer has direct family ties to Tulsa.

But he still comes back regularly to see the Oklahomans he learned to think of as family.

“They are the best of the best,” he said.

‘Make it your home’

Betty Coleman still remembers the first time she saw the Than family.

It was at Fort Chaffee Army Base in Arkansas, where they were being processed with other refugees before coming to Tulsa. 

They didn’t need any help carrying their things, she said.

“They had one little suitcase that had some papers and other important items in it,” she said. “And that’s all.”

Coleman, a lifelong Tulsan who’s now 91, was one of College Hill’s liaisons with the family.

She was with them almost daily early on, and came to feel a deep connection to them.

Than and his siblings grew up and moved away, but Coleman stays in touch and enjoys visits from Than.

“I’m kind of the grandmother to all of their children,” she said.

“I’m just so terribly impressed at how well they have all done,” Coleman added, noting that it feels good knowing she played a role.

The blessing went both ways, she said.

“We were enriched by it as a church, as were the family.”

She said she feels bad they didn’t do more. Recently, she even apologized to Than, reflecting on how small and humble the house was that the church provided.

“But he said no, it was perfect,” she said. “His mother loved that house. Because she had all of her family together in it.”

Coleman, still a member at College Hill, has followed the news about the Afghan refugees. 

“I’m looking forward to their coming,” she said, adding that she hopes to be involved in some way.

Based on her past experience, she would encourage the new arrivals “to get their children into school as soon as possible. The kids are where we will make the connection. They will learn the language and transition easier, and then they will help the parents.”

That’s how it worked for his family, Than said.

“My parents were in their late 40s, early 50s, and really struggled with English. I became the one that translated for them, who reviewed the utility bills and other things.”

Than, whose wife Kim is also a former Vietnamese refugee from Oklahoma, said the recent Afghanistan situation has brought back many memories of his own experience.

“There are so many parallels,” he said.

Most are not pleasant to think about. But one positive parallel, he said, is how his former home is stepping up.

Refugee arrivals officially began Sept. 24 in Tulsa, and as of this week more than 100 have come. Catholic Charities is heading up the resettlement effort, with support from many organizations, churches and individuals.

Than was impressed to learn that Oklahoma’s total of 1,800 ranks third-most of any state. 

“I cannot tell you how happy that makes me,” Than said.

“Oklahomans are a big-hearted people and so welcoming,” he said. “I hope and expect the Afghans will see that.”

Than said he remains grateful to the Colemans and several other Tulsa families who were involved with his family.

He hopes the Afghans will find similar support.

If he could say anything to the arriving refugees, he said, it’s “just open yourselves, talk to your neighbors. Make it your home. Because it really is.”

“I can’t predict the future, but I have a strong feeling they will do real well,” Than said.

Over 45 years after Tulsa was there for his family, former Vietnam refugee praises new outreach for Afghans | Tulsa World