Guardian Angels Catholic Church Offers Refugees the Chance to Pursue the American Dream

Duke Kim with Carl and Judy Scheider at Guardian Angels.

In the summer of 1979, it was nearly impossible to turn on the news or open a newspaper without seeing harrowing images of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of people abandoned their homes and attempted to escape the country; many left via fishing boats, risking disaster on the South China Sea for the possibility of starting over in a foreign land.

“We had no food, no water, nothing,” says Xuan Phan, who spent 18 months in a refugee camp on an island off the coast of Malaysia before she and her four children (three of whom she adopted from the refugee camp) braved the ocean to reach the U.S. “I’ll never forget.”

Xuan’s was the first family resettled in Woodbury through Welcoming the Stranger: Refugee Resettlement at Guardian Angels, a program started at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale by parishioners who wanted to help the displaced families they saw on the news. “We were anxious to do something, and we took the idea of sponsoring a family to the church,” says Carl Scheider, who, along with his wife, Judy, was instrumental in forming the program. More than 60 people signed on to help, and soon the church partnered with Catholic Charities to bring the Phans to Woodbury. They have more recently partnered with Lutheran Social Services.

Now the Guardian Angels program has teams of mentors to help families with everything from job searching to grocery shopping but, in 1979, everyone was learning as they went. “We were a bit naïve, but we built a relationship of trust and walked the journey together,” Judy says. The Scheiders and Phans became lifelong friends, watching each other’s children grow up and start families of their own. “When you’ve had an experience that’s so transformative, you want to reach out and provide for someone else,” Judy says.

“We owe everything to Guardian Angels,” says Duke Kim, Xuan’s son. Duke was 10 when the family came to Woodbury, and he remembers vividly the challenges his mother overcame with hard work and an open heart, from learning English to navigating the bus system and working full-time. “She didn’t give up and believed if you work hard and do your best, everything will come together.”

Now the owner of Duc’s Vietnamese Restaurant in Woodbury, Duke recently donated $1,000 in gift certificates for the refugee settlement program to use as a fundraiser, supporting the ministry’s newest family from Myanmar in the same way the community supported his family nearly 40 years ago.

The program has not only proven successful in relocating dozens of people over the years, it has also created lasting friendships and rewarding experiences for everyone involved. “We’re helping people, but we’re also educating ourselves,” Carl says. “The returns are enormous.”

“The parish has been amazingly supportive,” says Guardian Angels’ justice and outreach coordinator Suzanne Bernet, adding that she often hears from church volunteers that the resettled refugees have become like family. “Those personal connections are vital, and it’s such a reciprocal relationship,” she says.

For Duke, being able to give back to the program feels like coming full circle. “Sometimes, I have a bad day and take things for granted,” he says. “The stories I read and hear on NPR are a reality check, and I have to remind myself, ‘Remember where you came from.’”