An American Dream
At 23, Sonia Nga Johnston arrived on U.S. soil with little more than the clothes on her back. Today she's a bank president.
It was nearly the Fourth of July, 1975, when Johnston flew to California to start a new life. She was anxious to reach her family in Vietnam, but had been cautioned not to send letters directly, for fear that her parents and brothers would be killed if the communist government knew she’d escaped.
She wrote to a friend in France, who then mailed her letters to Can Tho. She didn’t know if her family was still alive. “Many did not make it,” she says of other South Vietnamese citizens who had tried to leave.
After six months stateside and still no response, Johnston visited a Baptist church. She’d been raised Buddhist, but she was feeling desperate and prayed to anyone who would listen.
“I said, ‘God, if you want me to believe…I want to find out if my immediate family is alive.’ I just cried for help.”
The next day, she received a letter from her father.
“I felt a miracle in my heart,” she says. She asked the pastor to save her and was baptized a few weeks later. But it would still be years before she saw her family again.
In 1976, Johnston moved to Northern Virginia, following her former boss from the consul’s office in search of career opportunities. Three more years would pass before the first 14 of her family members finally fled Vietnam on a fishing boat.
It was a tough voyage. They were raided by Thai pirates, who stole everything. They finally made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia, only to be turned away because it was already flooded with people.
Then, while being towed to another camp, the rope holding their fishing boat was cut, leaving them stranded at sea until a fisherman helped them to a small island off Indonesia. They stayed there for almost a year, building a shelter and eating fish.
A letter—with no stamp—finally reached Johnston’s Fairfax home in December of 1979. In it, her brother had drawn a map showing the island’s location.
Johnston had no idea how it had gotten to her without postage, but she took it to the American Red Cross in Arlington and asked for help tracking down her family. “They searched every island for six hours and finally found my family and brought them back to the refugee camp,” she says.
Over the next month, she lined up four Baptist Church sponsorships to bring her loved ones to the United States. Two of her sisters-in-law were pregnant. She was able to bring them all to Northern Virginia with the help of a refugee settlement program, and was personally waiting at the airport when they arrived. Today, her family in the United States numbers 50.
In 1992, she married Warren Johnston, an American soldier she had known in Vietnam. “The love of my life,” she says.
In America, Johnston’s career has been in banking. She started as a teller and worked her way up. She says she loves helping her community and connecting with peers. Even during Covid, she spends her days in the office. She misses her customers.
Johnston also serves on the boards of the American Red Cross (which helped locate her family so long ago), the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the Arlington Community Foundation.
“It’s the American dream,” she says. “I am so grateful for everything this country gives to me.”
For years it was hard for Johnston to talk about the experience of leaving her homeland and the life she knew. Recently, her niece Mary—born just after the extended family reached America—began asking questions about their family history.
Mary, now living in San Diego, made a YouTube video about the family’s against-all-odds journey to the U.S.
“I asked her where she learned all of that,” Johnston laughs. “She said, ‘From you, Auntie.’ ”
Madelyn Rosenberg is the author of the children’s book Cyclops of Central Park and co-author, with Wendy Wan-Long Shang, of Not Your All-American Girl. She lives in Arlington with her family.