'The Mother Teresa of Champaign-Urbana'

'The Mother Teresa of Champaign-Urbana'

URBANA — Anh Ha Ho was born in Vietnam, raised in France and spent a couple years in Canada.

But for the 69-year-old co-director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, there's no place like Champaign-Urbana.

It's home.

"It's the longest I've ever lived anywhere," she said. "Thirty-one years."

Ha Ho, who'll be honored with the Leadership Award during the Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum's annual celebration Saturday, knows what it's like to have to uproot — whether by force or by choice — and navigate immigration systems in foreign countries.

Born in North Vietnam in 1947, she moved with her family to France at a young age after her father, a pediatrician involved in Vietnamese politics, opened a private practice in Paris.

After 16 years there, her family traveled back to a war-torn Vietnam, where they were forced to live in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), in the south. Between the time the family moved back and Saigon fell in 1975, Ha Ho's father ran for president of Vietnam.

When he lost and the new regime took power, her father was arrested and sent away for three years on account of his previous political activities. Ha Ho's mother returned to France, her siblings dispersed to other parts of the world, and her husband was arrested for being among a group of intellectuals caught trying to flee the country.

Ha Ho knows how it feels to be alone, trying to survive with very few options, she said, much like the clients she works for each day at the local refugee center. Her past struggles are what give her the compassion to help other local immigrants and refugees who come to her office every day.

"Sometimes, you stumble upon a good samaritan. Sometimes, you get a lucky star," she said last week, reflecting on her own struggle to reunite with her family after her husband was arrested. He faced trial in Vietnam and served a year in jail. When her father was released, he was allowed to move to France to reunite with Ha Ho's mother.

Ha Ho's brother, who lives in Canada, sponsored her and her husband, who were then able to leave Vietnam in 1983. Her husband left Canada and came to Champaign-Urbana to finish his medical residency at the University of Illinois a year later. She followed him a year after that, and hasn't left since.

"It was a long trip to come to America. Even from the time I landed here to my citizenship day, it was a long trip," she said. "Everywhere I've gone in life, I had to find solutions. I had to become self-educated and self-confident."

Around the world

Being fluent in French, Vietnamese, English and German — and able to speak "survival" Spanish — is part of what made Ha Ho so qualified to work at the refugee center for the past 25 years.

That, coupled with her extensive knowledge of immigration systems, makes her a vital resource for immigrants and refugees trying to better their lives in the U.S.

"I've gone through nearly every different type of immigration status a person can go through," she said. "I was born in Vietnam and was a citizen there. Then I moved to France and became a permanent resident of that country. Then I moved back to Vietnam and regained my citizenship there. When I came to Canada, I became a permanent resident, too."

But she ran into the most difficulties navigating the U.S. immigration system. She arrived on a visitor's exchange visa, but at one point she lost her status in Canada and was undocumented in the U.S. for two months.

Ha Ho and her husband had to apply for political asylum, then work toward becoming permanent residents.

In 2000, after living in America for more than 15 years, she earned her U.S. citizenship.

"I realize how difficult things are because of all these stages," she said.

On a daily basis, Ha Ho and her colleagues provide services for clients in nine different languages, helping them with everything from translating paperwork and accompanying them to court to trying to help get their electric bill lowered.

"It is a very small agency with a very small budget, but we make every penny work," she said. "We have to. We are the voice of our clients."

'Mother Teresa' of C-U

The stories don't always have happy endings.

"People come here always thinking the grass is greener on the other side, but we come here and we leave so many things behind," she said, telling the story of a client who'd been a judge in the Congo. He lost his status and his robe when he came to the U.S. and now works several odd jobs to support his family.

One has him sweeping the floors at Wal-Mart. Another: selling robes and gowns to teachers and graduates.

"I always tell him, 'Judge, it doesn't matter what work you do. As long as you do it for a purpose and you do it well, you will always keep your dignity.' He said it made his day to hear that," she said.

Around the refugee center, some call her "the Mother Teresa of Champaign-Urbana," said co-worker Mayte Baixeras, a bilingual counselor who works with Hispanic clients.

"She's the best. She's a human in every way you can be. She's kind, she's lovely. She's always looking for people who need things. She'll ask you what size you are or if her clients need diapers."

That's the way she's chosen to live her life, Ha Ho said. While she and her husband are Buddhist, she says she makes decision based on "what my heart tells me to do."

"I set (out) for a life of service with compassion and nothing else. Today, it is the Syrians in need of aid; tomorrow, it will be another group," she said. "Politics is repeating all the time when you think about it. Injustice is everywhere. Greed is everywhere.

"So I prefer to just help and let others decide what's right or wrong."

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davidpettigrew32@gmail.com wrote on September 21, 2016 at 4:09 pm

I would like to state that for me the Mother Teresa of Urbana-Champaign is an Argentinean woman who lives in Urbana. She is known as Doña Gloria, and is someone who helps Latino families to buy their homes. All the Hispanics that were able to buy houses did it through her. This is a very generous family who should be recognized for their volunteer services. My best friend bought a house with her help and she couldn't have done it without her help.