From refugee to dentist dedicated to serving the poor

Dr. Pauline, a Vietnamese refugee, is the dental director for La Maestra Community Health Centers.

Editor’s Note: The essay below is an abridged version of what appeared in The Soul Speaks by Zara Marselian, CEO of La Maestra Community Health Centers. The book is a collection of stories about the lives of immigrants and refugees from around the world. It’s free with a $20 donation to the La Maestra Foundation, 4060 Fairmount Ave., San Diego, CA 92105. Shipping and handling cost an additional $3.

I have a passion for poor people. They really need our help. I especially love their kids. Some of them come into our clinic without shoes and unkempt. I love them immediately and want to help. You should see how happy they are when I talk with them and repair their teeth.  I wish I had a video camera to capture their beaming faces as they leave my dental chair.

I love the City Heights community, and working here at the clinic. I can’t imagine working anywhere else. I could get paid $800 a day working in La Jolla, but this is where I’m needed. This is where I feel at home.

I was born in Vietnam, in a small city near the center of the country called Danang. I have four older sisters and two older brothers. We grew up in a low-income inner-city neighborhood, sleeping on the floor of the one-room house we rented.

By 1979, my father decided it was essential that we leave Vietnam.  He saw no opportunity for our family’s survival under the communist regime, let alone the return to normal life. In 1980, my father escaped to Malaysia, where he was placed immediately in a refugee camp. Finally, after a three-year wait, a church sponsored his travel to Chicago where he began to work for the International Rescue Committee.

My father became a U.S. citizen after five years. Finally, it was time to start the immigration process to bring our family to America. We were unaware that our application had been approved, because the communist government had no intention of allowing our departure.

In order to survive, we knew we would have to escape. We traveled to the countryside where we could find space on a boat, paying the owner for each person. On our second day at sea, pirates came up to our boat and threw a bomb made of TNT. It blew up the back of the boat, including the engine. So there we sat, floating, with no way to move ahead, just drifting. Other pirate ships would come by to rob what little they could find.

One morning, after a month floating at sea, an old Thai man working for the Union 76 company came to our rescue, pulling our boat in close to the shore. We had no food during the time we were out, and had survived only by measuring a few drops of water each day along with the sugar and lemon juice drops my mother had made for us in preparation for our escape.

We were taken to a camp called Phanat Nikhom, a processing center for Indo-Chinese refugees in in the Chonburi Province. Fortunately, our stay there would be relatively short because my father had already obtained our immigration papers to join him in the U. S.

When we first arrived in San Diego, we were in a state of disbelief. We had finally made it.

I immediately enrolled in an English as a second language class at the adult school in City Heights. My English proficiency was poor. While studying English, I took a job as a receptionist in the dental office inside a Vietnamese grocery store. There I witnessed how people in pain could find immediate relief.

My next four years were spent at San Diego City College and San Diego State University taking dental classes and pursuing a degree in biology. Upon graduation from SDSU, I attended the pre-dental training program on scholarship at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. The course lasted two and a half months. From there, I was accepted by the University of Southern California, graduating four years later at the age of 26 as a doctor of dental surgery.

My siblings and I all had straight A’s in school. Three are now software engineers, one is an electrical engineer, and two of my sisters are biologists. We have followed my mother’s advice: she has always told her children that, no matter who you are, no matter what adversity you face, you must always stay true to your character and keep your virtues strong.