From refugee to attorney

by Mike Russell,

  • Sonny Nguyen

Sonny Nguyen LLM’16 hopes to use his knowledge of the law, and incredible personal experiences, to advocate for human rights.

The second group of pirates was too late. Valuable possessions —and the passengers’ dignity — had already been looted. The pirates released the small fishing boat back into the midnight waters of the Gulf of Thailand, leaving the Cambodian fishermen and their passengers to their fates.

Huddled below a tangle of coarse fishing nets, Sonny Nguyen LLM‘16, then age five, wept with relief in his parents’ arms. The pirates’ departure marked the passage of another harrowing step on the Nguyens’ years-long emigration to the United States.

After three days at sea in 1989, the vessel managed to bypass the Thai coast guard and deliver its desperate cargo. The Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen’s family among them, scattered into the countryside. They’d managed another tenuous step closer to a life they could imagine only on the fringes of their hopes.

Childhood spent on a razor’s edge

After the Vietnam War ended, Nguyen’s father — who’d worked for the U.S. CIA — was imprisoned and tortured in a re-education camp. He survived the punitive and often fatal conditions, but when he returned to his family, ongoing harassment from authorities made it clear that they would be safer to attempt escape to the United States than risk living under the Communist regime.

“At that time, we couldn’t leave the country legally,” recounts Nguyen, who was two when the family fled. “If they caught us, they would have killed us. To escape into Cambodia we had to skirt along a railroad that had been mined during the war. Many people died on that path.”

Nguyen’s family spent three years passing through Cambodia to get to Thailand. Living where they could, they sold Vietnamese food, saved for the next leg of their journey, and skirted local deportation laws.

Shortly after the Nguyens disembarked from that Cambodian fishing boat, they were betrayed by a fellow expatriate and arrested by the Thai police.

Prison a ticket to freedom

“They moved us from prison into a refugee camp with other Vietnamese. If you’d worked for the South Vietnamese Government — like my father — you had a chance to be sponsored by a host country,” says Nguyen. “Without sponsorship, you’d be deported back to Vietnam.”

After three-and-a-half years waiting out the review process in the Thai refugee camp, the Nguyens caught a glimmer of a happy ending to their grueling escape; they had been sponsored in the United States.

But the celebration died quickly. In 1993, just a few weeks before the family left for a new life, Nguyen’s mother succumbed to cancer. The memory of her death still brings tears to his eyes.

Survival skills become professional assets

If hardship and desperation sculpted Nguyen’s first eight years, perseverance and negotiation also left a mark.

The skills Nguyen’s parents used to convey their children to the United States now serve him well in his job as a marketing executive and office manager of an out-patient orthopedic surgery center in the greater Seattle, Washington area.

Nguyen thinks of himself as the guy who puts out fires. He likes to attend to the branch, build relationships with local professionals and find alternative resolutions to conflict. 

“I always like to be fair with our clients,” he says. “They like my negotiation style. I believe that you need to act in service to the longer-term relationship rather than just squeezing a few extra dollars in the moment.”

His sights stay high

A steady job will do for now, but eventually Nguyen wants to run his own law practice. As he sees it, that’s the clearest way to ensure a sustainable livelihood for himself and to protect his loved ones. Though his father died of cancer a few years ago, his two sisters in the U.S. are thriving.

“Being a lawyer in the United States is not easy, especially if English is not your first language,” admits Nguyen. “Sometimes it’s really hard to express myself or immediately understand others.”

But this latest hurdle proved no match for his determination. In 2015, Nguyen earned his JD and passed the California First Year Law School Examination on his first try. 

Now, he’s at Willamette to earn his Master of Laws (LLM) degree with an emphasis in dispute resolution. With that, he’ll just need a few final prerequisites before sitting for Washington’s bar exam. “If I pass it, I will open a law firm and build a talented resolutions team,” he says. “I think I have enough professional connections.”

Willamette’s Dispute Resolution Program balances theoretical, policy and ethical issues in dispute resolution with practical skills gained through hands-on experience in small claims court and externships. Founded in 1983 and ranked among the top ten dispute resolution programs in the country by U.S. News and World Report, the program offers a nationally acclaimed faculty of teachers and scholars. 

“The program is helping me to become a good lawyer and a good negotiator,” says Nguyen. “Arbitration and mediation are key in court nowadays. With those skills, I have the opportunity to affect change. My big dream is to use mediation for the rights of people in Vietnam or in other countries.”