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From Vietnamese refugee to U.S. representative

By Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, Special to CNN
  • Ahn "Joseph" Cao left Vietnam at 8 in a military transport plane at war's end
  • His mother stayed with his five siblings as father spent years in communist prisons
  • Without parents, he faced language barrier, unfamiliar customs and loneliness
  • He was in New Orleans during Katrina; decided to run for office to change things

Editor's note: America's 300 million-plus people are declaring their identity in the 2010 Census. This piece is part of a special series on in which people describe how they see their own identity. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao was elected in 2008 to represent Louisiana's 2nd District, making him the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress.

(CNN) -- It was April 1975 when I was packed into a military transport plane with two of my siblings as the Vietnam War ended. We left Vietnam to escape communist rule and eventually, take on an additional identity.

I was 8 years old, and being separated from both parents for the first time in my life was confusing and scary. My mother decided to stay behind with my five remaining siblings to wait for my father to return. An officer in the South Vietnam Army fighting alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War, my father spent the next seven years in the communist prisons, which were euphemistically called "re-education camps." It was many years later when our family was reunited.

The challenges I faced growing up were probably not that different from the struggles all other immigrants face when they first arrive in the United States. I suppose most immigrants, regardless of origin, would have to deal with obstacles such as the language barrier and unfamiliar customs. I vividly remember small things like missing rice as the staple in my diet and bigger challenges, including loneliness and the sense of being displaced.

I never imagined that one day I would think nothing of ordering gumbo or eating burritos, much less have a career in politics as the U.S. congressman representing the 2nd District of Louisiana.

Name: Rep. Ahn Cao, R-Louisiana
Age: 43
Birthplace: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Home: New Orleans, Louisiana
Occupation: Member of Congress

Like most immigrants, my siblings and I learned to assimilate into this big melting pot called the United States of America. We worked hard on our studies and in our businesses. Along with other Vietnamese immigrants and refugees of the time, stories of successes and heartbreaks quickly spread around the community.

Although the academic achievements of Vietnamese students in schools were touted in the media, we also agonized over the horrific news about the plights of the Vietnamese boat people.

Facing persecution and hardship in the old country, Vietnamese refugees braved the perilous seas aboard small fishing boats to seek freedom. Many lost their lives to piracy, storm and starvation. The lucky ones who were able to land somewhere would face cold rejections by a world grown tired of having to deal with refugee problems. The boat people saga continued well into the 1990s. I volunteered with Boat People SOS, a national organization that advocates for the refugees. My experience with them shaped my path in the years to come.

Vietnamese refugees braved the perilous seas aboard small fishing boats ... Many lost their lives to piracy, storm and starvation.
--Rep. Ahn Cao
  • Saigon
  • Vietnam
  • Louisiana
  • U.S. Congress

After graduating from Baylor University with a bachelor's degree in physics, I joined the Jesuits for the priesthood. After working with some of the poorest communities in Third World countries, I decided that politics would bring about quicker changes for the less fortunate among us. I studied to be a lawyer, and while working as an immigration lawyer in New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina changed my life. The storm destroyed my home and office.

Like many in my Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans, I came back to pick up the pieces after the storm. Facing one obstacle after another, we fought as a community to rebuild our homes and lives. During our efforts to close a landfill the city and state had opened right next to our community, Rep. Mike Honda came to hear our complaint and did not find anyone from within the community in public office to advocate for ourselves. He asked: "Who among you wants to run?" I raised my hand and began a new course as a public servant.

It has been 35 years since the first wave of Vietnamese refugees landed on American soil. Now things like Pho and spring rolls have joined the Americana mainstream. I no longer see myself as a displaced stranger; I am a Vietnamese-American.