Archived Voice Articles

Alumni Profile: The stories of Dinh Van Lo

By James Calvin Schaap

He wouldn’t want his story to begin in 1976, with his emigration to the United States, with the loving welcome given him and his family by gracious members of Hull First Christian Reformed Church, with his first bite of an American hamburger, his first language lesson, or the story of his first, somewhat disastrous semester at Dordt College.

Dinh Van Lo wouldn’t even want his story to begin with his birth in Vietnam, his father’s death when he was just five years old, his own prestigious education in quality French schools in Laos, or the devoted wisdom of his beloved grandmother, who raised him.

Dinh Van Lo, a Dordt College graduate of 1981, would probably start his own story in antiquity, as far back as 1283, when the kingdom of the Tai Dam, one of the least known ethnic groups of Indochina, was utterly destroyed by Kublai Khan. He might just start there because he describes the Tai Dam, his own proud ethnic tribe, as “professional refugees,” people who have little or no collective memory of living in their own land.

Dinh Van Lo can almost visualize the Tai Village that will rise on this hundred acre plot of Iowa farmland. Iowa is home to more than ninety percent of the Tai Dam people living in the United States. The immigrant experience of Dinh Van Lo and other Tai Dam refugees began in Northwest Iowa.

Dinh Van Lo can almost visualize the Tai Village that will rise on this hundred acre plot of Iowa farmland. Iowa is home to more than ninety percent of the Tai Dam people living in the United States. The immigrant experience of Dinh Van Lo and other Tai Dam refugees began in Northwest Iowa.

When Dinh Van Lo came to northwest Iowa in 1976, America’s Bicentennial year, he was part of the newest chapter in the long story of his own refugee people, to whom relocation is not news.

That whole story of the Tai Dam is the saga he and his people want to tell and memorialize on 100 acres of land they purchased along the Des Moines River in Iowa’s capital city, where, today, ninety percent of the American Tai Dam people live. Dinh is a grant writer in the Des Moines Independent Public School System, where he has been employed in various ways for more than twenty years, and vice president of the Tai Village Project, a dream that will soon begin to materialize on the now-empty rolling hills where an old factory once turned out bricks.

If the Tai Dam people brim with as much devotion and good humor as Dinh claims they do, then he is himself a most able representative and leader. Visit the site of the proposed Tai Village with him sometime, and you’ll soon reach for your wallet.

He says his people are civic-minded, community-oriented, and industrious. Dinh’s vitae includes a long list of community service: Commissioner of the Des Moines Human Rights Commission, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; a member of the Iowa Learns Council; past president of the National Association for the Advancement and Education of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans and a board member of Southeast Asian Resources Action Center, Washington, D.C. And there’s more. But his passion is his people, and little means as much to him now as the proposed Tai Village, something he believes will be an asset to the city, the state, and even the nation. It will serve as a community center for his people, a showplace for their culture and history; and it will document, he says, stories like his own, immigrant stories of people who needed befriending, and of those sponsors who, in the 70s and 80s, selflessly came to their aid.

The Tai Village project will tell hundreds, even thousands of stories about suffering, not unlike his own—about the time in the refugee camps when his family shared a couple of minnows just to flavor their watery soup; about the time eight family members felt fortunate to share a single egg for lunch.

But the Tai Village will also tell the story of Governor Robert E. Ray’s request to the people of Iowa to find a place in their communities for suffering Southeast Asians who, as a result of the Vietnam War, found themselves in deadly jeopardy in the wave of communist takeovers.

It will tell the stories like the ones he’ll never forget, when Hull First CRC gave him and his extended family a home, a job, a place to begin a new life. It will describe what he felt when people from another local congregation stole him and his new bride away and, while they were out, totally stocked the house trailer just east of the campus with furniture, pots and pans, and food. He and his wife, newlyweds, were about to take up residence there while Dinh was studying at Dordt. When he tells that story, astonishment is still in his eyes.

“Dordt College gave me a chance no one else would have,” he says, and for that chance he will always be grateful.

To Dinh Van Lo, who’d been a recipient of the finest education Laos could offer, small-town Iowa seemed, in a way, small potatoes, he says. He didn’t want a job in a factory; he wanted an education. After all, having an education had always been expected of him. He’d been highly favored in his community, and his father had made very clear, before he died, that this son of his would someday be a doctor.

But he was woefully ill-prepared for American higher education. When he took the ACT, he says, “I didn’t even know where to put my name.” He’ll never forget that, and repeats, “Dordt College gave me a chance—a big chance.” He’d come to the U.S. in May; in September he was enrolled. He knows now that few other colleges would have taken him, and that too is the kind of story the Thai Village will tell.

There will be other stories, too, like the ones he remembers of Dr. Al Mennega (see opposite page), professor of biology, who gave him oral instead of written tests. Mennega quickly became his mentor, he says, “because he understood where I was from.” He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t have made it without him.” That first semester he failed English 101 and a business class, but not biology.

He remembers Dordt because he was, he says, traveling through the emotional problems every immigrant does at first, the shock and then disillusionment one feels at the discovery that freedom and material wealth of this new land aren’t as heavenly as once they might have seemed.

“Dordt College healed me,” he says, with specific reference to the difficult stages of cultural adjustment he knows, not only because he’s been through them, but also because he’s become an expert in the field, lecturing about immigrant problems often. “Dordt College is a Christian college—they were understanding and caring. Everyone on the sidewalk—they were smiling,” he says. “They cared.”

And more. “Dordt College taught me that my work is not just for me,” he says. If there was any doubt, one needs only check out his vitae, which includes reference to two Governor’s Volunteer Awards.

Stories of starvation and salvation, of war and peace, of sadness and joy—those are the stories the new Tai Village will tell, he says, stories not unlike his own.

Soon after the fall of Saigon, a former U. S. government official named Arthur Crisfield, who had worked with the Tai Dam, pleaded with thirty state governors to help the Tai Dam people. What he wanted for them was not only deliverance from oppression, but also a place they could immigrate to together. They were a people, a separate people, “professional refugees.”

Then Iowa Governor Robert E. Ray responded to Crisfield’s request and welcomed the Tai Dam, as a people, to Iowa’s prairies, to its cities, its towns and villages, to farmsteads on the gently rolling hills of its rich and wide land. “As would be the case time and time again,” Ray wrote recently, “organizations, churches, and individuals stepped forward to open their homes and their communities.”

That’s the most recent chapter the archives at the Thai Village will relate, and one of its primary characters, undoubtedly, will be Dinh Van Lo.