Boat family finds benefactors years later

first_img“The government finally set up a refugee camp for us, and that’s where we lived for nine months until the Red Cross came and told us we had sponsors in America.” Their sponsors were families in a Havurah – friendship group – from Temple Judea in Tarzana. Jerry and Melba Nedler, Barbara and Jack Turk, Caroline and Arthur Lieber, and others. They watched the evening TV news and read newspaper stories about the poor boat people trying to escape a certain death. They knew they had to do more than just shake their heads and say, what a shame. “They stayed with us for about two months,” Jerry Nedler said Friday. “With the other families in our Havurah, we helped them adjust to their new country and become acclimated to a life of freedom and hope. “My wife, Melba, found Phuong a job, and Barrie, my oldest daughter, took the boys to see their first swimming pool on the CSUN campus, where she was a student. “Lee, our son, took them to the mall to show them what that was like, and Beth, my youngest daughter, helped them learn English watching TV with them. “After about two months, they decided they wanted to move closer to other Vietnamese families living in the North Hills area. Melba and Carolyn Lieber helped them find a new place to live, and we went back to a normal existence.” Until two weeks ago. After failing to find the Nedler home on Shoup – it was actually on Bessemer Street, just off Shoup – Peter thought his search had come to a dead end. He had already hired an immigration attorney to help find the family, but that had failed. So had requests to the U.S. State Department to get information under the new Patriot Act about their sponsorship to America. Then something that has kept the Khai family in good stead since they escaped their homeland on that crowded, small boat 28 years ago stepped in again. Luck. “About two weeks ago, I was at a party with some friends who were also boat people, and had been sponsored by a family to come to this country,” Peter said. “One of them had brought their sponsor with them, and I was talking to her about trying to find the people who had sponsored my family so I could thank them personally. “She told me it had been a special program sponsored by two temples in the Valley – Temple Judea and Valley Beth Shalom. That was a Saturday. On Monday, I was on the phone calling them.” Leslie Zimmer didn’t have a clue who Peter Khai was or anything about a woman named Melba. But the secretary to the rabbi at Temple Judea knew a heart-wrenching story when she heard one. She promised the man calling that she would look into the matter. Peter hung up the phone, thinking she didn’t sound too convincing, but 15 minutes later his phone rang. It was Leslie. “I did some research and found out that the only Melba it could have been was Melba Nedler, who passed away three years ago,” Leslie said Friday. “I called Jerry to let him know about Peter’s call and to see if I had the right Melba. He said Melba only helped a woman and her two boys so many years ago, and it couldn’t have been the gentleman who called me. “I called up Peter, a little deflated, and explained what Jerry had said. He became emotional as he said, `Yes, that was my mom and I am one of the two children. I was 9 years old at the time.”‘ When Peter called him a few minutes later, Jerry Nedler said he started to cry. “I’ve missed my wife terribly. She had done most of the work to give this family a chance at a new life. That she wasn’t here to see how they had succeeded broke my heart.” Last Sunday, in an emotional reunion, Peter, his wife, Linda, and their four children, along with his brother, Jerry – an LAUSD teacher – returned to the home on Bessemer Street that had welcomed them to America 28 years ago. Their mother was in San Jose visiting family and could not make it. But she will reunite with the sponsor families at the temple later this month. The Turks and the Liebers were there last Sunday, and so was Leslie Zimmer, the rabbi’s secretary who knew a great story when she heard one. “You know you always hear the stories of people helping others through terrible times, but you never hear the follow-up,” she said. Now you have. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREChargers go winless in AFC West with season-ending loss in Kansas CityHis name was Tuan Khai back then, and he was 9. His brother, Trung, was 6. Like Peter, he would also take an American first name, Jerry, when he became a U.S. citizen in 1989. It made it easier going through school and assimilating in their new country now that their old country was gone for them. They were Vietnamese boat people. For two weeks, the boys and their mother survived choppy seas with 200 refugees in a boat built for 50 to escape the wrath of the victorious Viet Cong. “We eluded pirates and all sorts of dangerous circumstances before we found land in Malaysia,” says Peter, now a successful Canoga Park business executive. “Malaysian officials didn’t want to take in any more refugees from Vietnam, so they used force to keep us out. But the adults on the boat, beaten and hurt, knew the terror of the open seas, and forced their way onto land. Peter Khai drove up and down Shoup Avenue in Woodland Hills trying to find the home of the family who had taken him in 28 years ago when no one else would. All he had was a first name, Melba, and a street name his Vietnamese mother, Phuong, remembered as Soup Street. It had to be Shoup, Peter knew, hoping one of the homes along the busy street would jog his memory, and he could finally say thank you after all these years. “They opened their family and hearts to a widowed mother and two little boys in 1979,” Peter says. “They didn’t have to do that. That memory always stuck with me.” last_img
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