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Onetime Vietnamese Refugee Returns Home to Aid Others

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Ian Wilhelm.

In 1975, Le Nhan Phuong left Vietnam, one of about 2,000 child refugees spirited to America by international aid groups. Today, he has returned to his homeland, but now it is he who is helping others.

Dr. Phuong is the newly appointed director of health programs for Atlantic Philanthropies, a $3.5-billion foundation with headquarters in Bermuda and New York.

At his new post, he will oversee the grant maker’s efforts to improve health inequities in South Africa, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Last year, the Atlantic program awarded $56.1-million.

Dr. Phuong, 43, started his new role in September. Previously he oversaw Atlantic’s grant making in Vietnam. In that job he is credited with improving transportation safety by pushing the Vietnamese government to pass a law in 2007 that requires motorbike riders to wear helmets.

Motorbikes are popular in Hanoi, where Mr. Phuong lives, and other parts of the country, but are a dangerous form of transportation along the clogged city streets.

More than 12,000 Vietnamese people die each year and more than twice that number are injured in traffic accidents, according to the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, in Hanoi.

“People were dying quite dramatically, about 37 to 40 lives a day,” he says. “We decided this was something we needed to tackle because it was all avoidable stuff.”

Atlantic’s president, Gara LaMarche, says that, in addition to Dr. Phuong’s experience swaying public policy, the physician has a “passion for social justice” and “has done a brilliant job in building our health program in Vietnam.”

Despite his interest in public health, Dr. Phuong originally set out on a different path — aerospace engineer. But after receiving a degree in the subject from the Georgia Institute of Technology, he had second thoughts.

“At that time, there was a struggle within myself. On the one hand, I wanted to do things that I was good at, which is being an engineer. On the other, there were things I wanted to do in the social sector,” he says. “The social thing won out.”

He returned to school, eventually earning his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, and a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

His humanitarian drive originated from an urge to return to Vietnam and help people who were not as lucky as he in escaping the ravages of war.

“When I decided to go to medical school, my ultimate objective was to live and work in Vietnam,” he says.

Dr. Phuong’s family lived in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in the 1970s when the city fell to North Vietnamese forces.

Age 10 at the time, Dr. Phuong was separated from his family. “My parents didn’t know if they would get out or not, so my mother gave me and my sister to an orphanage,” he says.

Thanks to Operation Babylift, an effort by the U.S government and relief groups to evacuate children during South Vietnam’s collapse, Dr. Phuong and his sister were taken to America. “Almost a year later,” he says, “we reunited with our family in Atlanta.”

In his new position at Atlantic, Dr. Phuong will continue to live in Hanoi, but will spend about 75 percent of his time traveling to projects in Vietnam and around the world.

He declined to say how much he will earn in his new job. “I’m making enough,” he says. “Compared to a Vietnamese salary I am making way too much.”

In an interview, Dr. Phuong spoke about his grant-making goals and what it is like working for Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation that plans to close in the next eight years or so, once it has spent all of its assets.

What are your goals with Atlantic’s health program?

In general, there are a lot of health inequities and inequality. And it has to do with poverty and how governments view it. So there are a lot of correctable things that we can do to improve the equities of health so a child born in certain circumstances will not have a lower living standard.

In Vietnam what are you working on?

The biggest thing is the primary health-care system. Vietnam has been a socialist country for a long time, so there’s that socialist tradition to care for the weakest of society. However, Vietnam has been following the market-oriented mechanism for a few years now, so a lot of these social-welfare policies have been neglected. We want to help the Vietnamese government help its weakest members.

Is the government open to suggestions from outsiders?

I’ve been in Vietnam for over 10 years now and I actually find it easy to influence policies and agendas. But the Vietnamese government by nature is very cautious. It wants to make sure the people it works with have well-intentioned meanings.

Vietnam has gone from a socialist model of central planning to more market-oriented, so convincing the Vietnamese government to stay the course in terms of social welfare is challenging. But it’s probably easier to do in a place like Vietnam than the U.S., where you say, “socialism,” and everyone’s scared stiff.

Do you hope your work paves the way for greater reconciliation between America and Vietnam?

I am a VietnameseAmerican, I left when I was young, but now I’m back here to help the country. So whatever we do here is all about reconciliation.

However, we want to make sure we help the society by helping the people who need it most. We want to make sure Vietnam is on its way to development and all that. But also make sure the reward of development is spread equally throughout the different populations in the country. If you develop, and only certain people benefit, you really haven’t gotten very far.

What do you like most about your job?

Making a difference. I’m in a position to really affect the lives of so many people. When I was in the U.S., I was an academic, I was on a commission for minority health in Ohio, but I never really felt like I was making a difference in the society. I was replaceable.

In Vietnam, I feel like I can do a lot, especially with Atlantic’s resources behind me.

Is it strange working for an organization that wants to close?

Actually, no. If you think about it, you don’t ever stay with one employer very long. So for me, working at Atlantic for the next eight or 10 years is actually normal. If Atlantic doesn’t close I’d probably want to move on to something else anyway.

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Global Impact:

Viet Nam


Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, Le Nhan Phuong, refugees