When Edward Pham (B.Eng.’90) arrived in Newfoundland from Vietnam by boat, he had just turned 16.
The journey was not smooth sailing — far from it. It was a perilous journey. Mr. Pham says it was dangerously crowded, with 65 people on a 30-foot boat.
They were refugees, fleeing South Vietnam in the years after the communist North Vietnam’s victory in the Vietnam War.
“We spent six nights on the ocean. The mechanical pump [to keep water out of the boat] was not working properly. It was terrifying. Because I was the only person who wasn’t seasick, the captain asked me to go down below to keep the boat afloat.”
As he descended the stairs, he thought about what his father told him before he left with the hope of a better life.
He had fashioned a homemade flotation device made from the inside part of a soccer ball, and told his son that if something went wrong on the journey, to just hold on and float.
“I could feel the electrical currents in my body. But I still needed to fix that pump!”
However, the younger Pham knew he couldn’t both float and carry the device. So he gave it to one of his friends.
“I had made the decision in that moment that I’d be willing to sink with the boat. I think the calmness that came over me once I made that decision gave me the strength to somehow stay focused on fixing the problem.”
With ocean water swirling at his feet and swallowing by the boat’s motor, it was hard to see what was happening.
Mr. Pham had to first figure out how the pump worked. Then, his hand was pulled into the device and he cut three of his fingers. He was bleeding a little, but then, with water almost touching the engine, he got an electrical shock.
“I could feel the electrical currents in my body,” he said. “But I still needed to fix that pump!”
From a tropical island to a barren rock
After those six death-defying days, the group landed on an oil rig just off the coast of Malaysia.
They were taken to a refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, an island about 200 miles from Kuala Lumpur, where he stayed with 10,000 other people for about a month.
He was then moved to a transit camp – a convent – where he stayed for about nine months.
When he finally got word that he would be transferred to St. John’s, N.L., he went directly to a map to find out where in the world he was going.
“I remember the smile on my face when the plane started to land and I started seeing evergreens. I was almost crying for joy thinking, ‘Oh my God, there are trees!’”
A Memorial experience
His first six months in St. John’s were spent learning English at Macpherson Junior High. He then enrolled in the full high school curriculum at Bishops College.
“I took home every single textbook every night in an Adidas sports bag. I would highlight every word I didn’t understand, and then look it up in the dictionary,” Mr. Pham recalled about his quest to learn the new language.
“Without all of that early support, I would’ve had a totally different life.”
“Year two was easier and by year three I didn’t have to look up a lot. I remember one day the principal called me into his office and I thought, ‘Uh oh, what did I do?’ and he said, ‘We would like for you to be our valedictorian.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, no problem!’ I went home and looked up the word and my jaw just dropped.”
Recalling the many people and experiences that supported him along his journey, he pinpointed the summer of 1982 when he worked at the police station. The job allowed him to purchase his first computer.
He still has it: a TRS-80 colour computer from Radio Shack. He says there was a new course on offer, Computer Programming, and he figured why not try something new?
“Computers helped my education and career. I was in the computer club, and I spent my co-op work terms at Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax and Bell Northern Research in Ottawa. I was able to do both software and hardware development.”
The desire to give back
After graduating from Memorial in 1990, Mr. Pham moved to Ottawa to pursue his master of engineering degree at Carleton University.
He eventually founded his own company, REALIT Management Inc., in 1998.
Through the REALIT Management Scholarship in Engineering, Mr. Pham is contributing $150,000 to Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science over the next 10 years.
He plans to make the award permanent.
Mr. Pham says he was in the Child Welfare Program, so he received financial support from the federal government until he turned 21. His engineering program at Memorial included six paid work terms, so he was able to cover his bills.
“I also received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council scholarship for my graduate studies because of my strong academics. By the time I finished my education, I only owed $1,600, which was incredible. I truly feel that without all of that early support, I would’ve had a totally different life.”
The same little boy who gave away the flotation device his father made to keep him alive in order to save others remains a giver.
“My gratitude as a receiver of generosity when I needed help the most has solidified in me the joy of giving, of contributing to those who are a little less fortunate and full of potential.”