Refugee Turned Librarian Loves Serving New Members of the Community

Once a Refugee, Today She Serves Library Customers in Fairfax County

Vicky Chu believes her job at Thomas Jefferson Public Library serving the local community was “meant to be.” Not because her family had a long tradition working in libraries. Nor did she always know she was destined to work in a public library.

As a matter of fact, growing up in an urban center of southern Vietnam on the other side of the world, Chu never imagined she would end up working in Falls Church, Virginia, as a circulation manager for one of the branches of the Fairfax County Public Library. Her story reveals both the unique character of the county’s public library collection and its staff, but also the ability of the human spirit to soar given the opportunity.

Chu grew up in a family of six children in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Her familylived comfortably despite, at that time, the increasing intensity of the Vietnam War. However, in April 1975, in the latter stages of the war, Saigon fell to the Communists and the city wasgripped by fear.Tan Son Nhat airport was bombed heavily on April 29 not far from where her family lived. Thousands of Vietnamese began to evacuate. Multiple choppers landed on rooftops throughout the city, picking up panicked evacuees.  

J Hudson with Mr. Huong Hoa Nguyen.

Library Director Jessica Hudson thanks Mr. Huong Hoa Nguyen for his organization’s continuing support of the partnership between the Fairfax County Public Library and northern Virginia’s Vietnamese community.

As her family drove through the city, Chu, then a girl of only nine, witnessed the harrowing escape scene with bodies strewn along the roadside. Her family had been in one of the many throngs waiting to be airlifted, but as the seats of the helicopter filled, there was only room left for one person. The passengers urged her father to take the seat. Unlike some of the men who left promising to arrange for their families to follow after, he chose not to go, staying behind with his family. As the years that followed crept by, life became miserable. The freedom they had once known was replaced by fear and constant scrutiny by the intrusive local government. After nine long years, Chu’s family was ready for a new life in a new homeland.

In 1984, the family left Vietnam through the ODP program (Orderly Departure Program), which provided a mechanism for Vietnamese to leave their homeland safely in an orderly manner to be resettled abroad. Her family was fortunate to have a sponsor living in the U.S., her aunt, to help earn them the green light to fly to the U.S. They arrived in New York City in August. Chu remembers she had two weeks, amidst culture shock and language challenges, before she was to start high school in her newly adopted home.

Frequenting the local library in Queens several afternoons a week, Chu hovered over books, studying endlessly so she could understand the language and her subjects. It was a struggle. A librarian noticed her regular visits, including her furrowed brow and serious expression as she studied. The first time she raised a question, the librarian was quick to answer, responding with encouragement and guiding her to find the library resources she needed. Over the months, she made Chu feel comfortable to be in a place where she belonged, where she could find support and get help. Today, Chu remembers that librarian and the impact she had on a young immigrant girl trying so hard to adapt, to fit in and to succeed.

Now, many years later, it is Chu working for the public library. She loves serving all the library’s customers, but especially helping those who are newcomers to the country find their footing in the community.

“It gives me such a great feeling when I’m able to help a customer to find what he is looking for and provide the service to customers to fulfill their needs,” she confided. “It truly makes my day when customers are happy and feel welcome as they come to the library! I realize that I have come full circle. Now, I am the one who is able to give back and help someone trying to make sense of the world.”

Beaming as she displayed the 20-year service pin she was recently awarded, Chu said she is particularly delighted when friends and colleagues ask her to share a little about her years working with the library. “As I tell them, it is a great honor for me to serve the community here in Falls Church and throughout Fairfax County, the place I have chosen as my forever home.”

Vicky (20 Years of Service).

On February 10, 2017, Vicky Chu was honored by Fairfax County for her 20 years of service to the library.

TJ and A Unique Partnership

Chu began her library career at the Woodrow Wilson branch of the library as a page, then moved on to a library aide position, working 20-32 hours per week until becoming a full time assistant circulation manager. She was promoted to the position of circulation manager at the Thomas Jefferson branch in 2003 and has been there ever since.

“As I arrived at TJ, I felt right away that this library has a strong connection with the community,” Chu said. She had an opportunity to meet and join with the two leading Vietnamese organizations involved in the project of Gateway to Freedom in 2005 (see Gateway to Freedom sidebar story). They proposed partnering with the library to develop a Vietnamese language collection that could serve the burgeoning Vietnamese community.  Thomas Jefferson Library, located near Seven Corners, an area of Falls Church where a large percent of Vietnamese families have settled, seemed like an ideal location.

The goal of the two organization was to donate 1000 items each year to gradually develop and expand the collection. The initiative also happened to coincide with TJ’s 50th  Anniversary, thus a grand opening ceremony was held on December 3, 2005 at which 500 new Vietnamese materials were donated and the partnership officially was launched.

Thomas Jefferson Library's Vietnamese collection is the product of an ongoing partnership between northern Virginia's Vietnamese community and the Fairfax County Public Library.

Thomas Jefferson Library's Vietnamese collection is the product of an ongoing partnership between northern Virginia's Vietnamese community and the Fairfax County Public Library.
Celebrating that partnership here (above, L to R) are: Huong Hoa Nguyen, president, Vietnamese National Institute of Administration Alumni Association, East Coast USA (NIAAA); Vicky Chu, circulation manager, Thomas Jefferson Library, Jessica Hudson, library director, Fairfax County Public Library, Laurel Tacoma, branch manager, Thomas Jefferson Library, Susan Harman, executive director, Fairfax Library Foundation, Toa Do, president, Business Development Assistance Group, Inc. (BDAG), and Executive Committee, Vietnamese National Institute of Administration Alumni Association, Van Anh Do, intern, Business Development Assistance Group, Ms. Mong Hoa Tong Le, chairwoman, Charity Group of VA Affection (CGOVAA), representing the Quang Da Mutual Association, Professor Cao T. Le, chairwoman, Committee to Support the Vietnamese Book Section of the Thomas Jefferson Library, Nancy Gravatt, marketing, Fairfax County Public Library.

In the ensuing years, the partnership continued to bear fruit with thousands of new items coming into the collection. “Today,” Chu said, “TJ has the biggest collection of Vietnamese materials in the system. And we also have a great connection and continuing close relationship between the library and these important community partners.”

For example, a goal is to grow the Vietnamese eBook collection, which would also encourage Vietnamese patrons to learn how to download content to different devices and to take advantage of new ways of obtaining materials.

“When Vietnamese customers come here they feel very encouraged to find someone at the library who speaks their language,” Chu said. “I am very proud to be part of the community and to be able to support this partnership.”

Vicky introduces the program.

Children watch as Vicky introduces a program at the Thomas Jefferson Library featuring local performers celebrating the Lunar New Year Celebration of Year of the Rooster 2017.

With the advent of floating collections whereby other branches can request and receive items from sister libraries in the system, the Vietnamese collection is today somewhat dispersed among several branches. Nevertheless, TJ still retains between 4300-4400 items in the collection (that includes books and periodicals). Checkout is approximately 190 items/week, indicating a steady rate of use.

Following a temporary closing in 2009-2010 for renovations, TJ celebrated its grand reopening in January 2010 at which time special recognition was made of the Vietnamese partners who had contributed nearly $46,000 to the collection. Later, during a 3rd phase of the partnership—the Gateway to Freedom initiative—another $38,000 was donated, which included all the founding sponsors from local business ($1,000/plaque) and the bricks bearing the names of individual Vietnamese families who each contributed to the Gateway to Freedom project.

The walkway of “Gateway to Freedom” is a symbol of the support of the Vietnamese–American community for the role the library plays in their lives. It’s a memorable walkway into a remarkable library. And when you come to Thomas Jefferson Library, rest assured that Vicky Chu will be there to welcome you.

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Gateway to Freedom

The Gateway to Freedom Project is a public private partnership between the Fairfax County Public Library system and the two leading Vietnamese organizations in the area: Vietnamese National Institute of Administration Alumni Association (VNIAAA) and the Quang Da Mutual Association East Coast USA (QDMA). The Gateway to Freedom is a tribute to the Vietnamese refugees in Fairfax County, as well as in the United States. Thomas Jefferson Library, the branch chosen to launch the initiative, honors this partnership by housing the largest Vietnamese language collection in the system along with its brick walkway, a gift from the Vietnamese refugee community to express their deep gratitude to the residents of Fairfax County and to the American people who have given them a chance to live free again. Stop by and check out the brick walkway when you're in the neighborhood.

Vicky Chu and Gateway to Freedom scroll

Vicky Chu and Gateway to Freedom scroll.


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