- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. (AP) - For more than 22,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, the road to resettlement after the Vietnam War led through Fort Indiantown Gap.

On Saturday, more than 40 years after the fall of Saigon, former refugees were reunited with the place in the United States they first called home.

Nearly 200 people attended the reunion at the Gap, including former refugees who came from as far as California, their families as well as volunteers and military personnel who tended to classrooms, mess halls and other facilities at the camp when it was open for eight months in 1975.

For many, there had been 40 years of separation between them and the time they last stepped foot on the military base, which was temporarily converted into one of four resettlement centers in the United States that accepted refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

A handful stayed overnight in barracks, mirroring the living quarters refugees would have settled into decades ago.

Throughout the afternoon and early evening, bands strummed and sung in both Vietnamese and English. Miniature American and South Vietnamese flags were mixed among flowers for centerpieces. Some women and young girls navigated the banquet room in Ao Dais, a traditional Vietnamese dress.

Hiep Bui, 60, spent much of Saturday with a camera in hand, maneuvering around tables and guests as he documented the gathering. His six-year-old daughter, An, was dressed in a yellow Ao Dai, watching as she sat on a step leading into the room.

Bui, a systems analyst who now lives in Washington D.C., said he was a solider for the South Vietnamese Navy. On April 30, 1975, he heard over the radio that Saigon had surrendered. Saying he refused to surrender, Bui evacuated on a small boat that led into the Pacific Ocean, where he was later transferred onto a larger naval ship.

Taking a path familiar to thousands of refugees, Bui was taken to Subic Bay, then a refugee camp in Guam.

There, after about three months, officials asked if any refugees wanted to be resettled through Fort Indiantown Gap, he recalled. Most people, Bui said, had their hopes set on Camp Pendleton in California.

He called the conditions at the Gap “excellent” - they were fed three meals a day, a departure from what he was accustomed to. It was important for him to return, he said because, “this is the first American land I stayed on.”

He added, “I have very good memories (here).”

On July 1, 1975, Mary Pham’s oldest son was born at the Gap. Pham said she visits the area occasionally to visit her father’s grave in Palmyra, where he was buried 30 years ago. But Saturday was the first time she returned to Fort Indiantown Gap.

She likened it to a homecoming.

“We lost a country. This is second country. This is our hometown now,” she said, adding that she often thinks about the generosity of the people who didn’t know anything about her or her family, but didn’t hesitate to help them rebuild their lives during their early days in the country.

As Pham spoke, Lennie DiMatteo, 93, and her daughter, Wendy Hollsinger, 57, walked into the room. Pham broke off, reaching over to embrace DiMatteo, who sponsored Pham’s family out of the resettlement camp so many years ago.

Hollsinger said her family had, for many years, taken in several families from places including Poland and Romania for brief periods of time. When they were asked by their church to sponsor a Vietnamese family, Hollsinger said they quickly agreed.

A junior in high school at time, Hollsinger said the arrangement introduced her to Vietnamese culture and language, recalling that Pham’s family cooked once a week and would make enough egg rolls and spring rolls to last days.

Even after leaving their home, Hollsinger said Pham’s family kept in touch, often remembering to send gifts, cards and flowers during the holidays to signify how appreciative they were.

“They never forgot,” Hollsinger said, tearing up. “They were just so gracious and kind.”

DiMatteo added, “They were family.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1GU82jd

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Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com

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