1975 war evacuee’s emotional meeting with fiancee and child as they arrive here for a new life
A man evacuated to Northern Ireland as a refugee from Vietnam nearly half-a-century ago said he was “overjoyed” after an emotional first meeting yesterday with his 20-month-old baby, who was born in the Asian country.
Vance McElhinney said he hopes that his daughter Liz does not have to endure the same levels of racism in her new home in Lurgan that he did as he grew up in the town.
“I know that racism has boiled up again because of the Euro 2020 final. But I get that every day and it will never go away, that’s just life,” he said.
"I had to deal with it and I dealt with it.
“It’s only a minority, though it is still there. But I will try to ensure Liz doesn’t have to experience it,” added the 47-year-old, who was armed with teddy bears at George Best Belfast City Airport as he waited for fiancée Le Hang and little daughter to complete their exhausting 6,000-mile journey from Hanoi.
“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” said Vance, as he paced the arrivals area before their flight touched down.
“I’m really excited. I’ve struggled for over a year-and-a-half to smash through a wall of bureaucracy to get them here.”
However, the first ever encounter between father and daughter — who had only seen each other on Skype — didn’t go quite according to plan.
As soon as Vance lifted Liz for a hug, she burst into tears and he had to return her quickly to her 32-year-old mother.
“She’s tired after all the travelling, and besides, she doesn’t really know me,” he said. “Seeing someone on the internet isn’t quite the same as coming face to face in real life. Anyway, I’m just overjoyed to see her and Le.
“The long wait has been worth it. Sorting out all the red tape about visas and then having to cope with Covid-19 and all the tests was stressful for us all. But now I can start what I know will be an amazing life with my amazing new family. Initially, however, we’ll just go home now and chill out.
“Le has to quarantine and then we’re going to go to Donegal for a holiday. We’ll do family things and I’ll be a proper father rather than just a video dad.”
Coincidentally, Liz is almost the same age Vance was in April 1975 when he came to Northern Ireland as part of Operation Babylift from Saigon, when the United States airlifted 3,000 children in the last days of the Vietnam War.
Vance was adopted by Liz and Cyril McElhinney, who brought him up along with their two other sons Stephen and David.
Vance, who went back to Vietnam six years ago in a bid to find his biological parents, met Le on one of his visits.
He said: “We fell in love and we were delighted that Liz was born in November 2019, but I was back in Lurgan by that time.”
Liz was named after Vance’s adoptive mother, who was a prominent Church of Ireland cleric in Lurgan and who died in 2017.
Vance said: “I hope to give Liz as fantastic a life as my mum and dad gave me.
"In practical terms, I will also have to help Le now and get my hands dirty and get used to changing nappies.
“Liz is a beautiful little girl and she’s a wee bit smaller than she looked on the internet calls.”
Vance said their new life would be a big change for Le and Liz in terms of culture and food, adding: “It’s going to take two or three months for them to adjust.
"I know that it wasn’t easy for me to adjust.
"But I will be there to support them on what will undoubtedly be a hard road ahead.”
He said that even with all the difficulties he had experienced, he never considered leaving here.
“I grew up in Northern Ireland and I love Northern Ireland. I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” he said.
"If I can get through the struggles then I know Le and Liz will deal with them as well. But don’t get me wrong, there are going to be fantastic times as well.”
His fiancée is hoping to improve her English by taking classes. And when she was asked how she was feeling after setting foot in Northern Ireland for the first time, she replied: “Tired.”
Vance said he planned to complete the necessary paperwork to allow Le and Liz to resettle permanently.
He added: “Le and I are going to get married in the next few months… and yes, she has said ‘yes’.”