By: Ái Lê Belcon, Nurse Practitioner, Emergency Medicine, Southeast Group
About Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month celebrates women and their contributions and achievements in a variety of fields and contemporary society. It is celebrated during March in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to correspond with International Women’s Day on March 8; and during October in Canada to correspond with the celebration of Persons Day on October 18. To celebrate, Ái Lê Belcon, NP, is sharing her journey from her childhood in Vietnam to her medical career in the United States.
Growing Up in Vietnam
My first nine years of growing up in Vietnam were very comfortable. My father, who actively served in the Southern Vietnam military, provided for our family. Although he was rarely home, he made the most of his time with my four siblings and me when he did come home. Some of my fondest memories with my father are when he would take us to the town bookstore. Because of this, my siblings and I all grew up loving to read, write poems and play music. My mother, who worked as a military nurse until I was born, served as the primary caregiver for the five children. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers known as “Việt Cộng” took over the South. They captured our father and sent him to prison camp close to the Chinese border. He was imprisoned for seven years, then lived under house arrest for another ten years. The Việt Cộng also took possession of all our belongings, including our house, furniture, and all of our money in the bank. To survive, my mother, who became empty-handed in a blink of an eye, had to take all of us to a small village in the Mekong Delta region in South Vietnam. In the village, my mother did everything she was capable of to ensure that we were dressed, fed, and sent to school. Our family survived mostly on my mother’s profit from her shop, where she bought and sold household goods and medicine.
My Family’s Decision to Leave
The pressure of living under Communist law increased when we reached college age. While under house arrest, our father never regained the freedoms of citizenship. He tried everything in his power to lead a normal life, but was always kept under close watch by the Vietnam government. Our family began the process to immigrate to the U.S. under the Humanitarian Operation (HO) program in 1982, and it took ten years for us to get accepted. We left Vietnam on November 23, 1992 and moved to Jacksonville, Florida. I was 26 years old. Although we were grateful to leave Vietnam, moving to the U.S. certainly came with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest obstacles my siblings and I faced when we first arrived in the U.S. was the language barrier. We took English classes throughout middle school and high school in Vietnam, but since so many years had passed, we had a difficult time communicating with others. During the first year in the United States, we enrolled in ESL classes to learn English at night.
Overcoming the Challenges of Being a Refugee
Despite the language barrier, my family immediately started to work about one to two weeks after we arrived in America. We paid friends for rides to work and were paid the minimum wage at our jobs. My parents continued to work manual labor jobs until they retired, but my siblings and I were all able to finish our education and become professionals before joining the workforce. Amidst all of the odd jobs and challenges that came with moving across the world, I always knew that I wanted to become a nurse. Watching my mother care for the village as a military nurse and by selling medicine in her shop inspired me to follow in her footsteps. I earned my nursing degree four years after we arrived in America, graduating in 1996. Because my family and I had no other options in Vietnam, we were forced to leave our home. I believe that because of this, my siblings and I were all extremely motivated to become successful. I have been driven with determination to work as hard as I can. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! This Women’s History Month, I especially want to give credit to my mother, who paved the way for my siblings and I to be as successful as we could. Without her selfless dedication to care not only for her family, but also the village in Vietnam, I would not be able to live out my dream of helping others each day. For more stories from our communities, clinicians and associates, subscribe to our blog.