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Urban Health Accelerator


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Anj Vu Sawyer, Southeast Asian Coalition

Photo of Anj Vu Sawyer, Southeast Asian Coalition

Anj Vu Sawyer
Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts
Worcester, MA

Assists Southeast Asian immigrants, refugees and low-income residents to integrate and become contributing citizens while preserving their cultural heritage.

Introducing creative ideas that changed the way my family and culture’s tradition and my organizations approached the challenges of life or business has always been the heart of my story.

On April 30, 1975, as a second-year medical student, I convinced my family to escape the war by climbing over the gate of the American Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam. We lost everything, except the clothes on our backs. Fast-forward to 2016, when Rory Kennedy asked me to screen her award-winning documentary, “Last Day In Vietnam.” Here, in the trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTWX-BB4aAA), at 1:25-1:27, you will see my mother, my sister, and me struggling to get through the barbwire atop the Embassy’s gate. How cherish that image with all my heart, as it is the only thing I have to prove my existence before April 30, 1975. I am a refugee – airlifted out of Vietnam to a new life of service. That picture is a testimony to the human spirit, to our resilience and to the life-giving power of leaning in for each other. 

On May 30, 2018, when I was asked to speak at the opening of a new business in Worcester, MA, the owner shared with me his life story. In the 80’s, on a fishing boat, he fled Vietnam as a seven-year-old boy, with his mother, his three-year-old sister and 10 or so other Vietnamese. Their boat was intercepted by Thai pirates who assaulted all the girls and women, including his baby sister. As his mother screamed and tried to protect her little girl, the pirates tossed them both into the sea where they drowned. The sufferings I had to endure and witness during the Vietnam War, as well as the suffering I’ve seen through the lives of many other refugees of the world with whom I have served, have only empowered me to try to figure out ways to alleviate pain stemming from violence and poverty. The story I heard that day in May broke my heart all over again. But seeing the owner’s entrepreneurial spirit, the family he’s raised, and his active civic engagement made me humbly grateful to the USA, this country for giving him and me freedom and the hope that never dies. From the time I arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas, as a refugee, I’ve had the support of many Americans who’ve come along to help me, someone who was a stranger in their land, to accomplish my dream and purpose to improve lives on a global scale. 

Thank you to the EmPOWERED To Serve Urban Health Accelerator™ in-kind sponsors for providing mentorship and access to technology: