Friday, May 30, 2003

Not born to privilege? Think again

I learned something at the library, but it didn't come from the books.

I learned that life's hills and valleys are no match for people determined to create better opportunities for their children.

Le Ha, a diminutive, friendly woman, and her husband, Hai Bui, opened Le's Cafe this week. The breakfast and lunch spot, inside Cincinnati's downtown library, specializes in Vietnamese, French and American fare.

Ha and Bui immigrated to the United States in 1975, boat people fleeing Communism. Bui, 26, had been a solder in South Vietnam's army. Ha, his 19-year-old girlfriend, had a brother in the army.

They all were in danger.

A chance at sea

Both families rowed in a small boat to a larger ship, where 4,000 others were waiting out the upheaval in their country.

"We were scared. We didn't know where we were going," Ha said.

They brought only a little rice and water. After a couple weeks, the U.S. Navy rescued them, taking them to Guam, where they stayed five months.

A Mount Washington church sponsored Ha's family in Cincinnati, but Bui and his family were sent to Pennsylvania, where he worked in coal mines.

Over the next three years, the couple wrote and called each other, not knowing if they'd ever be together again.

Bui believed the coal mines were his future. But one year, heavy snowstorms led to floods that destroyed a mine.

"I really cracked up," Bui said. "One of my friends got killed."

Bui started over, this time training as a welder. But there were no jobs in it.

He moved to Cincinnati, staying with Ha's family and working as a laborer.

A federal jobs program offered hope. Bui took an aptitude test and was one of two - out of 600 - to show promise with computers.

He trained nine months and then took evening college courses, getting a bachelor's degree in five years. He paid the University of Cincinnati with a credit card.

He worked 12 years at University Hospital.

A struggle

Ha had only one dream - to finish school.

In Vietnam, she'd quit after fifth grade to work and care for her four brothers.

In the United States, she struggled to learn English, then accounting. Night school and factory work, she said, led to a devastating miscarriage.

She and Bui had two children at the time. They lived in her parents' basement until they saved enough to buy three acres in Eastgate 10 years ago.

Bui has been building their home room by room since.

In 1990, they mortgaged it to open Dragon Le's in Norwood. But the city fought them in court for years to block a liquor license. The Buis prevailed, but their restaurant folded after seven years.

They tried again, opening Main Street Wok downtown. But it was a struggle, and they lost Bui's extra income when he was laid off from his computer job 18 months ago. He started a new job this week.

Most days, Ha rises at 6 a.m. to open the cafe at 9. She and her family serve customers until closing at 4:30 p.m. Then she cooks late into the night.

She dreams now of her kids' college chances. Her three nearly grown daughters want careers in computers, business and law; her son wants to be a doctor.

Ha knows her children have better chances than she and her husband did. But she doesn't rest. She urges them to use their opportunities.

"I tell my children, 'My life was sometimes hard,' " she said. " 'But you live in America. You have a chance to go to school.' "

E-mail or phone 768-8395

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