Fabulous Women over 40 Loan Hillsten
Diary of a Storyteller,  Personal Work

Fabulous Women Over 40: Loan Hillsten

By Sheri Oneal

This month I am excited to share Ms. April in my blog series Fabulous Women Over 40. Loan Hillsten and I have had the same circle of friends for about two years. I learned of Loan’s story at a dinner party one night when inquiring about where she grew up. She is a vibrant and caring person who carries a secret past most of her friends and colleagues do not know about.

A portrait of Loan Hillsten in her kitchen as she shares her story as a 1975 Vietnamese Refugee coming to America for blog series Fabulous Women Over 40

We, as Americans, are privileged to live as freely as we do. The awareness of those here from other countries is evident, and often the media shares insight to the struggles they have endured coming to America with dreams of freedom and opportunity. I have never known anyone personally with a similar journey until I met Loan. Her past is riddled with memories of fleeing her war ravaged homeland with her family in search of freedom in the United States.

Loan Hillsten AKA Loan Thi Kim Pham was born in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam on November 24, 1963. She is the youngest of four siblings, two sisters, Le and Lan, and two brothers, Thuy and Lai. Loan’s mother, Tu Thi Trinh, was a housewife who made extra money cooking Vietnamese food and selling it at the local market. She passed away of liver cancer at the age of 43 when Loan was only 9 years old. (below photo is of Loan’s family before she was born). Loan remembers how wonderful her mom’s cooking was and how so many people loved buying her delightful dishes from the market. Loan’s father, Vinh Van Pham, fought for the South in the Vietnam War, from 1950-1954, and was left crippled when he lost both legs stepping on a land-mine.

Loan Hillsten shares a black and white family portrait for the photo blog series Fabulous Women Over 40

On April 29, 1975, the night before the “Fall of Saigon,” Loan and her family fled Saigon to escape definite death from the Northern Vietnamese forces who were expected to invade the next day. She remembers her brother-in-law (who was in the military) telling her dad the communist were coming to take over the city. Knowing they would kill anyone associated with the military first, they were forced to leave their home and all their worldly possessions behind. Loan remembers arriving at the pier scared, watching as people were screaming, crying and fighting to get on boats so they would not be left behind or be separated from their families. Because her dad was unable to walk he told them to go ahead and get on the boat but her brother-in-law wouldn’t let that happen and carried her dad on his back, fighting his way through the crowd to assure he was on the same boat as his family.

A portrait of Loan Hillsten on her couch sharing her story as a 12 year old Vietnamese Refugee in 1975 for the photo blog series Fabulous Women Over 40

The boat she boarded with her family held 30-40 people, with no one knowing where they were going, only that they were leaving land. The men stayed up on deck most of the time and the women and children stayed below with no bathroom and little food. She remembers hearing stories from her brother-in-law of men on the upper deck who jumped to their death in fear of what might lie ahead. When they arrived in the Philippines two weeks later they were not welcome. The U.S. military had to step in and took them by boat to Guam before they were able to come to the United States. They lived in a tent for a couple weeks on this island. They had to shower out in the open and she recalls the army soldiers riding by whistling and yelling at her as she tried to cover her naked body making her feel defiled and embarrassed.

Loan’s memory of her childhood is scattered with visions most 12 year olds should never have to endure. Having only the clothes they were wearing when they fled, she and her family arrived in America. They were placed in a refugee camp, Fort Indiantown Gap, known as “The Gap” or “FTIG” located in Pennsylvania. The GAP served as a refugee camp for Southeast Asian refugees over an 8 month period in 1975. More than 32,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees were resettled through the camp. Her first memory upon arriving was how cold it was and seeing snow for the first time. Each day they would gather in lines and wait for their meals, there was nothing to do all day and they were not allowed to leave the tightly secured base.

Loan Hillsten shares her ID card as Vietnamese Refugee in the U.S. at the age of 12 for the photo blog series Fabulous Women Over 40

After 6 months, her family was lucky enough to have two churches sponsor them out of the refugee camp, being sponsored was the only way anyone could leave the facility. The churches helped them find a home in Urbandale, Iowa, to get them signed up for the school system and covered the cost of food and rent for the first 3 months. In their new small home, 10 people lived in a 3 bedroom house with only one bath, you can imagine the chaos that ensued each morning. Loan started elementary school where she had to not only learn a new language (since she spoke no English), but also acclimate to a fascinating and at times scary new culture.

In the years that followed, Loan and her family adjusted and assimilated to life in America. She and her siblings went on to finish college. Her American life was not, however, left unscathed even after surviving and escaping a war ravaged country, she would face the tragedy of losing two more family members to liver cancer. Her brother passed away at 25 years old, who at the time was working to complete a master’s degree in engineering. Her sister, 39 at the time, perished two years later. Knowing this disease runs in her family, Loan gets annual checkups.

Loan Hillsten telling her story as Vietnamese Refugee in the U.S. at the age of 12 for Fabulous Women over 40 blog series

Today Loan resides in Murfreesboro, TN with her 15 year old son Taylor and is a Finance Manager at McKesson Corporation. Most of her friends see her as a beautiful, active and happy person, someone who is always laughing. Her friends look forward to her cooking and she always delivers something amazing to friendly gatherings, something I know her mother would be proud of because she carries on some of her cultural traditions. She is the first to help when someone is sick or needs something and she shows no sign of any of the past experiences she had to endure. This month marks the 40th anniversary of fleeing South Vietnam and the experience that led her to become an American citizen. She recently visited her father (photo below) and other family members in Iowa.

Loan Hillsten with her father Vinh Van Pham

It humbles me to see a woman who has gone through what she did at such a young age, yet see no sign of sadness or conflict in her life. Her strength and compassion is truly amazing. She is an inspiration to me and is why I had to showcase her as a Fabulous Woman over 40! 

A portrait of Loan Hillsten in her living room as she shares her story as a 1975 Vietnamese Refugee coming to America for blog series Fabulous Women Over 40

I hope you have enjoyed Loan’s story! I would love to hear your thoughts so please feel free to leave comments below. Stay tuned for Ms. May!

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