Volunteer Profile: Mary Nguyen

nguyen1“I am so lucky and have so much. How can I not give back?”

—–Huong “Mary” Nguyen, Toni’s Kitchen Volunteer


When you meet Mary Nguyen, you’d never guess by her cheery demeanor that she survived a harrowing journey from Vietnam to start a new life in the United States. Whether she’s cooking soup for 75 guests at Toni’s Kitchen, wiping down countertops or bagging bread for guests to take home, this ball of energy never stops for a moment. We somehow managed to catch up with this vivacious volunteer to learn about her story:  


The year was 1979. The night was hot and the air was sticky. Under cover of darkness, with their hearts beating fiercely, Mary Nguyen and her husband paid a stranger to take them and their two small children to a boat that promised to carry them to freedom. Hoisting their children above their heads, the couple waded through waist-high river water and stumbled on paths covered with twisted vines. Boarding a small, over-loaded boat near Saigon, (now Ho Chi Minh City), Mary and her family were now refugees, part of the mass exodus of millions of so-called “Vietnamese Boat People” who fled the communist regime.

When the boat pushed off, Mary exhaled for the first time in what felt like hours. But almost immediately, pirates attacked their vessel. Passengers were brutally murdered before her eyes, young girls were abducted and the passengers’ money and few possessions were stolen. Shaken and traumatized, with no food and no water, Mary says she did not know if “we would live or die.”


After days at sea, the boat came ashore at the Bidong Island refugee camp in Malaysia. Mary had no idea where they were. United Nations relief workers gave the refugees food, water, medical care and tents to live in. “There was canned fish, no meat,” says Mary, recalling the sharp contrast to the relative comfort of her former life in Vietnam.


After 13 months in the camp, a relative’s friend in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania sponsored Mary and her family. She came to the U.S., hit the ground running and never stopped. She spoke no English and had no marketable skills. But that didn’t deter Mary from working tirelessly, sometimes holding three jobs at once. The refugee whose first job was picking tomatoes in the hot sun for $10 a day in Pennsylvania eventually owned her own nail salon in Bloomfield, New Jersey.  Along the way, she cleaned buses on the night shift for New Jersey Transit, worked in a factory and was employed in a Sheraton Hotel kitchen. It was arduous, backbreaking work. But Mary was determined to put her now three children through college and buy a home. It’s a goal she accomplished handily. Now retired, still has energy to spare for her 4 grandchildren.

But Mary says of retirement, “The days are long.” Which is part of what brings her to Toni’s Kitchen. Volunteering up to 4 days a week gives her days structure. Helping others contributes to her sense of purpose.  “I thank God for every day,” Mary says. Her eyes fill with tears when she thinks back to those terrifying days adrift at sea, the years of hard labor in the U.S. and the full and rich life she has created for her family.  “I am so lucky,” she says.

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