The Refugee Romance: Ai Thien Tran

Every night, Ai Thien Tran would try to forget that he was in a Philippines refugee camp. He'd mentally try to block out the 15 people crammed in the small house with him. He'd try to forget that he failed his screening process and that there was barely enough food to survive.

Instead, he closed his eyes and thought about her.

No matter how hopeless it was in the refugee camp during the day, Tran found hope dreaming about his childhood sweetheart from Vietnam at night. They were neighbours and went to school together since they were nine years old. They grew up to become the top boy and girl in their class as teenagers, but he never got a chance to tell her how he felt about her. The last time he saw her was in 1985.

"I never got to say goodbye to her. She rode her bicycle by my house and I saw her out my window. We exchanged one last look. I knew I loved her then," says Tran, who was sent to a refugee camp when he was 20 years old.

"I would reminisce about her smile, the beauty mark on her lip, her figure, and how she used to wear skirts. Dreaming of seeing her again was the only thing that kept me alive in the refugee camp."

He would have to keep dreaming for 12 long years. Tran's youth and potential were wasted in the camp, as he waited to be sponsored. Like so many Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines today, he was a man without a country and without a future.

The living conditions in the camp were horrible, but even worse was the feeling of hopelessness that many refugees experienced. There was rampant depression and some people even contemplated suicide. Tran wanted to help the other refugees deal with their anxiety and took a job as a counselor. But even Tran felt the hopelessness of his situation sometimes and was ready to give up.

Then a letter came that changed his life.

It was from her, the girl of his dreams. She had moved to Montreal since 1993 with her family and had been searching for him all these years.

One letter a month turned into three letters a week. Friendly phone conversations of old classmates turned into love. She wanted to save him, but her family was against it. There were plenty of good men in Canada, why waste time with someone in a refugee camp? Although she was a Buddhist, she went to St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Montreal, knelt at the altar and prayed for a sign until her knees were bleeding.

In 2000, Tran married his dream girl in Manila, Philippines, and gave her his name, Dinh Ai Khanh. He came to Canada one year later at the ripe age of 32 with only $12 in his pocket and a determination to make the most of the opportunity that his new wife had given him.

Tran got a job as a general warehouse worker at a major Montreal firm and in only four short years, he was promoted to become the company's Human Resources Coordinator. Whereas he was once desperate searching for a job, Tran is now in charge of hiring people. He is on the company's management team and works closely with high-level executives.

In addition to working full-time, Tran is also a second-year social work student at McGill University. He was ranked among the top 15% in his class, with a GPA of 4.0. Because of this achievement, Tran was invited to be a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society, an organization honouring some of the top university students in the world.

In 2006, he won the Golden Key award which "recognizes outstanding members who achieve academic excellence while balancing additional commitments such as family and/or career". Tran was selected as the top 10 Golden Key recipients from all over the world to win this award. He was the only Canadian student to receive the scholarship.

"I study hard for my wife. I want to prove to her that she made the right choice. And to thank her for saving me, "says Tran.

"Sometimes when I come home from a long day of work and night school, I close my eyes and think back to the refugee camp. And suddenly I'm not tired anymore. We've all been given a great opportunity here in North America. I'm not going to waste my chance or take it for granted. I'm thankful for everything this Christmas, especially when I open my eyes and see her smile and her beauty mark beside me...and I realize that my dreams have come true."

Ai Thien Tran
Ai Thien Tran

Written by Thien Huynh

Thien Huynh is a reporter for 24 Hours and appears on SUN TV every Thursday. If you would like to nominate someone for Pride of the Vietnamese or have a story to tell, contact him at or Thoi Bao at