Friday, April 1, 2005

Cape woman helps Vietnamese neighbors

Published in the Current

CAPE ELIZABETH (April 1, 2005): Three decades after she left Vietnam, Lilly Pyle of Cape Elizabeth is leading an effort to help those still living in her native village.

Pyle was born and grew up in the village of Dong Ha in central Vietnam, just inland from Da Nang, in the territory that became known during the Vietnam War as the DMZ, the demilitarized zone.

“It used to be a little village” and even now has only between 3,000 and 5,000 residents – she has been told not to ask for exact numbers for fear the Communist government will think she's a spy.

When she was growing up, an American military base was built nearby. “As children, we went out to the fence to see them,” she said. “I sell bananas and Cokes and stuff” to the servicemen.

In 1972, the Americans pulled back and the Viet Cong took the village after a devastating rocket attack that split up her family for days.

Heading to America

Pyle was in Da Nang then, learning to be a seamstress, and the family ended up in a refugee camp. Pyle quit school to earn money by doing laundry for an American serviceman from Maine, whom she later married and, even later, divorced.

A friend of Pyle’s from the village ended up working for another American, who shared living quarters with Pyle’s future husband.

That village friend married the serviceman she was working for and moved to Maryland. She sent Pyle letters asking her to come to America.

“She sent me pictures of apples and horses,” Pyle said. The serviceman she had worked for, now back in the U.S., promised to support her if she came over.

But still Pyle worried about whether her father, a police officer, would be punished if she left for America.

“He said he owed me my life anywhere that’s safe at the time,” so she left. After a brief trip to Maryland, Pyle went to Maine, where she got married and had two children.

She lost touch with her girlfriend in Maryland, and began life entirely anew in Maine.

Years down the road, Pyle left what had become a very bad relationship.

“If I escaped from that war, I escape again,” she said. She learned to drive, and to read and write English, and left, for the sake of her children, who have both now graduated from college.


In the mid-1990s, in response to a wish from her dying father, Pyle returned to Vietnam for the first time since she had left.

“Imagine you come home 30 years later,” she said. The villagers were poor and hungry.

Government rules required them to build on land they owned, or the government would take the land for someone else. So the villagers built homes, wall by wall, as they could afford the materials.

Others were able to finish a house, but had no other money. “They live in a nice house and (have) no food because they feel the house is going to be (there for) generations,” Pyle said.

“I have always wanted to do something to help,” she said, and so she resolved to raise money to help the villagers – her former neighbors, who remember her as a member of a good family, one of the oldest in the village.

While she was home, she also got bad news: “The children were getting kidnapped and sold to another country for prostitution.”

Many of the people have no jobs, but still have to pay taxes. They also have to pay for their children to attend school.

With Pyle’s money, families are better able to provide for themselves. Some of her money also goes to help the community at large. The first $4,000 she raises this year, for example, will pay for fences and playgrounds at local schools. After that, “I’ll try to see if I can have some form of a day care.”

Seeking donations

Pyle has set up a non-profit organization, the Vietnamese Hope Foundation, to allow donors to deduct contributions from their income taxes. People can find out more about the foundation at its Web site,, and can send donations to Pyle at PO Box 2752, South Portland, ME 04116.

All of the money goes to the people in the village – she covers the travel expenses herself.

She has returned twice since her father’s death, once with her children and once on her own. Each time she has brought donations to help women and children in Dong Ha.

Many of the women she gives money to are widowed mothers. A lot of the men in the village are dying of cancer – “none of them are over 40” – and the women need the help.

“I can’t save everybody, but I can do a little bit at a time,” Pyle said. “I’ve helped a lot of families.”

But with the American money comes questions from the Vietnamese government, including requests for bribes.

One official demanded she give all the money to him, promising to buy rice to give to everyone in the village. She refused, citing the Biblical proverb “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

“I want these people to become independent like me,” she said.

Pyle wants to be sure of where her money is going and personally interviews families that are possible recipients.

“These people never had anything,” she said. “It’s so hard. Everybody the same situation. … I just help one at a time.”

Pyle wants to broaden her foundation’s donor base, who are mostly now friends and customers at her Old Port hair salon. She is trying to get other Vietnamese-Americans around the U.S. to raise money too, to support their villages.

She believes she has found her purpose in life, and has been given the means to carry it out.

“I believe that God has chosen me” to face the challenges of war, emigration, abuse and poverty. Without those experiences, Pyle said, “How would I know how to get out of the gutter? Then I wouldn’t know how to help these people.”