Humans of Emerson: Jenny Yap


Griffin Daily News, April, 1982. From left to right: Rob Lytle, my father Hoa, standing in front of my father is myself, my older brother Alex, my mother Anh holding my younger brother Kearn; behind my mother is the reporter from the Griffin Daily News who covered our story in 1982; next to him are Kathy and Bob Lytle; in front of them are Ephraim, Melissa, and Nate Lytle.

Lately, I have been listening to stories on NPR about how people have opened their homes and communities to refugees from Syria and the Middle East. I am so touched by the kindness and generosity that is out there. Reflecting on my family’s experience as Chinese-Vietnamese refugees, I want to share my story as a special thanks to the family and the church who took us in some thirty-six years ago. The intersection of our lives in a small rural town outside of Atlanta, Georgia, in April of 1981, forever changed all of our journeys. I am so glad to be able to share our family’s story.

Starting in 1975, two million Vietnamese left Vietnam in boats after twenty years of civil war. They were known as the “boat people.” My father paid what was then an inordinate amount of money to be able to board a boat with my mother and a bag carrying all of their belongings. It was a week-long trip on the treacherous South China Sea from Haiphong, North Vietnam, to the refugee camp in Hong Kong where they lived for three years. My brother and I were born during our time living in the camp. According to my mother, I was born “full-term,” but weighed less than five pounds. My mother’s postpartum weight at five feet two inches was ninety pounds.

As a holding area for refugees waiting to start new lives in other countries, the camp saw many refugees come and go. The most common destinations were the UK, Canada, and the US. My family was lucky to be sponsored by Griffin Alliance Church through the World Relief Organization to come to the US. Bob and Kathy Lytle and their four children were our sponsor family, and we lived with them for our first several months in the US until another more permanent living situation was arranged for us. They took us into their home, family, church, and community without expecting anything in return.

A few years ago, Kathy put together an album entitled Our Family which included copies of Polaroid photographs, original documents, and newspaper clippings from our time living with them. The following excerpt written by an immigration official was probably as much as she knew about my family before she took us in:

“…Presently she [my mother, Ahn] is a housewife, knows sewing, she was a seamstress in VN, would like to get a job in a garment factory, suitable for manual labour work, husband [my father] had all kinds of labour jobs in VN, presently working in a construction company as a manual labourer, no special skill, worked on a boat before, willing to take any kind of job, came from ‘urban area,’ poor family, kids are very small, the oldest one is only nineteen months.”


Boston, MA winter 2015 From left to right: My husband Jason, my daughter Avery, myself, Kathy Lytle, my sister Cynthia (b. 1993), Bob Lytle, my mother Anne, my brother Alex, my nephew Dominic, my sister-in-law Joanne.

From this small piece of information, the Lytles welcomed us with open arms. So many people came together to help my family in those early days. My father was eager to work, and they helped him find his first job, a custodial position at the local elementary school. My mother gave birth to my younger brother in December 1981. Within the first year, we were able to move into our own home.

The following excerpt is taken verbatim from Kathy’s diary, written during the first few weeks of us living with her family:

April 13, 1981

“Now I understand why no one was ever able to describe this experience in a word. There is no feeling like this. I love the people; they’re so considerate and so unimposing. They are so quiet-mannered and easygoing. I also admire them so much—what courage they have to pick up and start in a new place like this. I want to do everything I can to help them or make it a little easier, but I can hardly do anything at all except be here for the small steps and encourage them as they move along. Something really hit me tonight. The babies were crying and crying and not settling down. I began praying for them. I was wishing I could say, ‘Ahn—I know how you feel. I’ve been there with babies not feeling well and constantly fussing.’ As I prayed, I thought the Holy Spirit can work with them the same way he has with me. There’s no language barrier, no cultural barrier—it’s the same for all of us. And the Holy Spirit quieted them down instantly. One of those ‘coincidences.’ Thank you Lord. You’re so good and always there—if only we’d remember to ask for your help.”

A generation later, I am so thankful for the experiences and opportunities that my family has had since coming to the US. I am so proud and honored to say that we are living the American dream. We learned English as our second language. We became naturalized US citizens in 1989. My siblings and I were the first in our generation to go to college. We’ve bought homes and have professional jobs. And we’re raising families. What more could we ask for? Thank you Bob and Kathy, the Griffin Alliance Church, and the many innumerable members of your community who have helped us along the way. Your compassion and generosity are truly inspiring.


Jenny Yap, Center for Health and Wellness

Jenny Yap is a Family Nurse Practitioner with the Center for Health and Wellness