HELPING HAND. Tri Phan, right, poses with fellow Lutheran
Social Services staff members Abdiwali Sharif-Abdinasir and
Mariam Bassoma, at the agency’s refugee resettlement office in
Fargo, North Dakota. They are holding a poster Phan received
when he was honored with the organization’s first-ever Dove
Award for his dedication and outstanding service. Phan, 66,
worked for the resettlement program for nearly three decades.
(AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #1 (January 1, 2018),
Retiring refugee leader to visit immigrants’
By Dave Kolpack
The Associated Press
FARGO, N.D. — He has been the middleman in North Dakota’s
refugee resettlement program for nearly three decades, helping
thousands of refugees and other immigrants navigate their
journey to U.S. citizenship. Now Tri Phan wants to see their
native countries, such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Sierra Leon.
Phan — himself a former refugee who spent three years in a
North Vietnamese prison camp after serving as a tank commander
for the South Vietnamese military — has been a longtime adviser
for newcomers from dozens of countries. He is retiring from
Lutheran Social Services in Fargo, which is North Dakota’s lone
"I would love to travel," said Phan, who is moving to
California with his wife to be close to their three grown
children and their grandchildren. "It would be interesting to
visit these places I have heard so much about."
As a proportion of its population, the Fargo area takes in
more refugees than most American cities. Phan arrived in North
Dakota in the early 1990s, when the state was experiencing an
influx of refugees from Southeast Asia. He began working as a
bilingual case manager at Lutheran Social Services before
working his way up to supervisor of immigration services.
"Tri Phan, he came here as a refugee," said Mariam Bassoma, a
one-time refugee and one of Phan’s co-workers. "For the longest
time he worked two jobs. He never complains and he never gets
tired. He just makes you feel like you can do it too."
Shirley Dykshoorn, a Lutheran Social Services vice president,
figures Phan handled an average of 500 to 600 cases a year. That
adds up to about 14,000 people he assisted with processing,
technical assistance, counselling, and testing for citizenship.
Phan helped Abdiwali Sharif-Abdinasir move to North Dakota
from Somalia in 2004, several years after his first application
was filed. Later, after Sharif-Abdinasir travelled to Kenya to
get married, Phan managed the process for Sharif-Abdinasir’s
wife, who was granted a visa after about 14 months.
"I would give Tri Phan a hard time," Sharif-Abdinasir said,
adding that he would ask Phan, "‘When is she coming?’"
"He was really patient with me. I think the city of Fargo
should give him an award because of how many refugees he has
helped bring here."
Dykshoorn said managers tried to get Phan to stop coming into
the office on weekends, to no avail. She said he saw clients
even if they didn’t have appointments. He returned almost every
message left via e-mail, work phone, or home phone. The only way
he couldn’t be reached was by cellphone, because he’s never had
Phan, who turned 66 on Christmas, left Dykshoorn a "to-do"
list for his department that stretches into 2019.
"He has taught everybody to fish, as the parable goes,"
Dykshoorn said. "Nobody is going to be around forever, but he
has trained and mentored and helped lots of people."
Phan came to the U.S in 1990 to make a better life for his
family more than a decade after his 1978 release from the prison
"There was a strong stigma against people who served in the
old Republic of Vietnam and there were many job and work
opportunities that would have been barred from myself and even
my children if I had stayed there," Phan said.
Phan said his experience at the prison camp taught him to
appreciate life and make the most of his opportunities.
Sentenced to three years of hard labor and lucky to get one cup
of rice per day to eat, his weight fell from 140 pounds down to
100 by the time he was released. His mother didn’t recognize
"I almost died. Now I feel alive," he said. "Regardless of
what happened in your life, you need to be strong and accept it.
Deal with it. The opportunity is right here."