"The communists had taken my beauty shop, everything I worked for. I stayed in Malaysia two years in a refugee camp. It was a nightmare. There was nothing there. We had to build our own shelter to live in. We chopped wood to build a home and dug a well for water.
"We were there about a year before the United Nations came and started to supply our food. On the island, we caught fish, and there was wildlife in the camp. Snakes or whatever you could catch, you ate.
"We ate a lot of bugs. The bugs in the coconut trees were good. We would boil them and eat them.
"A lot of people kept coming until 60,000 people lived on that island. We built a hospital, a school and a church after the United Nations came in.
"The first year, we had no medical care at all. We just had to survive. A lot of people got sick, and there was nothing you could do. You would go out in the fields to find some herbs to help.
"The United Nations had a ship come with medical equipment. Sickness was really bad, and we couldn't leave the island.
"The UN sent a delegation from different countries to interview the refugees. From there, the refugees applied for a visa to come to the country. We were illegal immigrants in Malaysia. We had to wait for a country like the United States to come and sponsor us.
"The Baptist Temple was a sponsor, and I came to Charleston. That was November 1980. I flew from Malaysia to San Francisco. I'd lived in those conditions so long, I thought it was beautiful here. I loved it.
"In Malaysia, I learned a little English, enough to survive.
"The church sponsored three refugees, and we lived together in an apartment with one bedroom on the West Side. The second week, they took me to Garnet school to learn English.
"I saw the Chinese Imperial Restaurant. I can speak Chinese. I went to talk to the owner, and they let me work in the kitchen about eight months. I washed dishes, rolled egg rolls, whatever they wanted me to do. They paid me $2 and something.
"They gave me one meal a day. In the refugee camp, I only got one meal a day anyway, so one meal a day here was plenty. I would take it home to eat it for breakfast and lunch.
"While I was working there, I went to beauty school. That took me less than a year. I knew hairdressing, but I had to go to the school to get my license here. When I quit the restaurant, I worked in a beauty shop, New Dawn. I did a lot of maintenance work for the Baptist Temple in the evenings.
"Eight years later, I bought a shop of my own on 52nd Street. I was there 20-some years. Today marks the first year in my new shop. It took me seven months to renovate it. I would work in my first shop and come here in the evenings to work on this one. I work all the time. I love to work. Work is my hobby.
"I met my wife in Charleston. My income was pretty good, so I helped the new refugees, which is how I met her. She came on a visa. Her sister sponsored her to come here. I helped her mother and others, and that's how we met. We married in 1989.
"I sent her to beauty school before we got married. She works here with me as a manicurist.
"We have two boys. Joseph is 23 and graduated with honors from WVU. He has applied to medical school. Jay is 16. He goes to Capital High.
"I never went back to Vietnam. My parents have passed away. I never saw them again, but over the years, we talked.
"We've vacationed here and there, in California, New York, Florida. I'm not leaving here. I love West Virginia.
"Sometimes I dream about all that I went through. It never really leaves you. But I'm doing well now in the United States. I became a citizen 13 years ago."
Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.