The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Refugees return to Fort Chaffee

Published July 11, 2019

A former refugee who once lived at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith returned for a visit June 19, the eve of World Refugee Day. Vi Le, regional general counsel for Mercy in Oklahoma and Arkansas, started life in war-torn Vietnam.

She arrived with her family as an 18-month-old refugee just days after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Le and her parents visited where they and eventually more than 50,000 refugees were brought over a seven-month span.

“When people ask where I come from, that’s a very difficult question for a refugee because you can come from so many places. My American story begins at Fort Chaffee. It’s really a special place,” she said.

The first Indochinese, including Vietnamese, arrived May 2, 1975.

The Sisters of Mercy helped at the refugee camp, which was a comfort to Le’s family, all of whom converted to Catholicism in Vietnam. In 1975, Sister Judith Marie Keith was president and chief executive officer of St. Edward Hospital, now Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.

“The sisters did phenomenal work that has paid off for generations,” Le said. “They probably had no idea at the time of the impact they made.”

Le, her family and more than 25,000 refugees settled in the Oklahoma City area, where she and her family still live. In addition to being a Mercy leader, Le also is board president of Catholic Charities in Oklahoma.