Bangor’s Jewish community had welcomed displaced Jews for decades when in the late 1970s its members were asked by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to help a family fleeing Vietnam.
The Do family of five arrived in Bangor on a freezing winter day in February or March of 1979 and were met by Bill Miller, then-owner of Miller Drug, and other members of the city’s Conservative and Orthodox synagogues.
On Saturday, Pham Do, 77, his wife, Mui Tang, 70, their three grown children, and six of their seven grandchildren gathered at Frank’s Bakery on State Street for the 40th anniversary of the family’s arrival.
Miller described meeting the Do family for the first time.
“[HIAS] sent us a catalogue,” he said. “We said that we wanted a mommy, a daddy and two children. When we went to the [Bangor] airport to meet them, there was a mommy, a daddy and three children, who were 5, 3 and 6 months. Whoops.”
The family spoke no English and arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, according to Miller.
“They had flip-flops on their feet, jackets that said, ‘HIAS,’ and an empty suitcase,” Miller, who lives in Bangor, said. “I don’t think the baby even had a diaper.”
David Price, who owned Dave’s Furniture, let the family live rent free in a Center Street apartment he owned. Members of the Jewish community gave them furniture and clothing and helped them learn English.
“When I came here I had never seen snow and I was cold all the time,” Mui Tang said. “I’m very grateful to have had so many nice people helping my family.”
The children attended nursery school and summer day camp for free at the Jewish Community Center on Somerset Street. Recently, the building was torn down to make way for a new gym at nearby John Bapst Memorial High School.
Leonard Minsky of Bangor, then the president of Superior Paper Products, gave Pham Do his first job as a janitor. Minsky also gave him a ride home from work since he did not yet have a car.
“When I got home, I’d go to the dictionary to make sure I’d given him the correct meanings of words,” Minsky said.
Saturday’s event was held to thank the Millers, Minskys, Judy Bielecki and others for their unflagging support over the years.
“Without your support, we wouldn’t be here and we are so thankful,” the youngest child, 40-year-old Esia Do of Scarborough, said Saturday. She works as a tax accountant in southern Maine.
The Do family is of Chinese dissent, and after U.S. forces withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975, they were discriminated against by the new government, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Thousands of people, including the Do family, fled the new regime in boats for Malaysia, where they were not welcome either.
Esheen Do Conrad, 45, of Sarasota, Florida, said her parents never talked much about why they left Vietnam other than to say they wanted more opportunities for their children.
During the time the family was waiting for sponsorship while on a ship in Malaysian waters, Mui Tang went into labor, her eldest child said. Her fellow passengers tried to get her to a hospital but Esia Do was born before they could reach shore.
After working a year for Superior Paper, Pham Do went to work for Oriental Jade. He worked in the restaurant’s kitchen for 35 years. Mui Tang worked at Country Inn. Both retired in 2010 but still live in the house in Bangor they bought in 1988. Pham Do and Mui Tang and their children became American citizens in 1984.
Eling Do, 43, who lives in South Berwick and works in Massachusetts as a software engineer, said Saturday that he and his sisters “are very fortunate” to have been sponsored by Bangor’s Jewish community.
“We have wonderful families and kids,” he said. “We’ve never forgotten how you helped us.”
That assistance included bringing seven of Mui Tang’s siblings and her parents to Maine. Most later moved to Houston.
Members of the Jewish community benefited from the relationship with the Do family, too, Bielecki of Belgrade said.
“They taught me a lot about family and extended family,” she said. “I feel very blessed to have them in my life.”