The scenes from Kabul of desperate Afghans seeking to escape the Taliban in early September were moving, upsetting, and disturbing. For Elaine Aromin, who serves as the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV manager of contracts, it was all that and much, much more.
It brought back memories of when she and her family — Aromin’s birth name is Phung Vuong — were among refugees who fled Vietnam by boat following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
While the number of Vietnamese boat people who arrived safely in another country totaled nearly 800,000 — the migration and humanitarian crisis was at its highest in 1978 and 1979 — the United Nations High Commission on Refugees reported as many as 400,000 boat people died at sea on small overcrowded fishing boats, either at the hands of pirates or during storms.
“Seeing and hearing the plight of these Afghans brought me to tears,” Aromin said.
Unable to speak a word of English when she arrived in Las Vegas in 1980 at the age of 8, Aromin and her family first escaped from Vietnam to Indonesia on a fishing boat. The family was then resettled in Nevada by United States authorities.
Upon becoming a U.S. citizen in 1989, Phung Vuong changed her first name to Elaine, and became Elaine Aromin in 2009 after marriage to Raymund Aromin.
“I feel the desperation of the Afghan people,” Aromin said. “People don’t leave their country with only the clothes on their backs because they want to. It’s all about survival. They don’t want to die or end up in prison. They want to give a better life to their children.”
In the three years following the Vietnam War, Aromin’s parents and brother lived in the remote countryside of Vietnam while Aromin lived with her grandmother and uncles, one of whom owned a steel plant in the city of Saigon.
“This was because my dad had previously been a driver for one of the U.S. generals and the North Vietnamese were hunting for anyone that aided the U.S,” Aromin said. “My family lived in constant fear of my father being captured. My family would sneak out and visit a few times annually to see us with the help of close friends, relatives, and neighbors.”
By late 1978, Aromin said the treatment of ethnic Chinese in the country, coupled with the concern about her father’s capture, forced her family to escape. Two attempts at escape by her immediate family were unsuccessful, though on both attempts family assets were confiscated by authorities.
“By our third attempt, we were out of money and resources. Luckily members of my family were fishermen and my dad knew how to navigate the South China Sea. So my dad bargained for his services to get us out. After four days and three nights with 140 people on a 140 foot boat, we arrived on the shores of an Indonesian island. Passengers had been packed like sardines in the hull. We were on the upper part of the boat, but had to remain horizontal at all times.”
The time on the Indonesia island, Aromin says, was “exactly like the show ‘Survivor.’ We built our own shelter with banana leaves and ate fruit and seafood. I was so malnourished at one time that my belly bloated bigger than my head. My parents thought I might die. We survived by trading. My dad was very entrepreneurial. Because he knew how to build a shelter with banana leaves, we were paid with clothing, medicine and other essentials.”
After a few months there, the family received sponsorship to come to the U.S.
Members of Aromin’s paternal family had already set roots in Las Vegas and with the help of Catholic Charities, Aromin and her family were sponsored and came to Nevada to reunite with them.
By junior high, Aromin was at the top of her class and graduated from El Dorado High School with high honors. She earned her bachelor of science degree in hospitality management at UNLV and completed her MBA in health sciences at Roseman University.
“I love this country,” Aromin says. “It has given me the opportunity to become the person I am today. I will never forget the compassion of the people of this country, how they reached out to help me in school.”