Faith and family forge strong bonds for immigrant couple

After settling in Regina, Ponziano Aluma and Lydia Nguyen used their commitment to Christianity and family to provide for two adopted sons.

Article content

Their sign at the Regina Farmers’ Market reads “Good Morning Springrolls” below the image of a radiant sun. Ponziano Aluma and his wife Lydia Nguyen radiate a similar energy as they smile behind their pandemic masks and wave to customers.

They originate from different homelands, but they are united by their experiences, faith and a deep devotion to their adopted sons as well as a hard-fought desire to set them on a better path in life than the one they started upon.

The couple knows much about new beginnings.

REGINA, SASK : May 15, 2021 — Ponziano Aluma, left, and Lydia Nguyen call out to potential customers while operating their stand at the Regina farmer’s market in Regina, Saskatchewan on May 15, 2021. BRANDON HARDER/ Regina Leader-Post
REGINA, SASK : May 15, 2021 — Ponziano Aluma, left, and Lydia Nguyen call out to potential customers while operating their stand at the Regina farmer’s market in Regina, Saskatchewan on May 15, 2021. BRANDON HARDER/ Regina Leader-Post Photo by BRANDON HARDER /Regina Leader-Post

Born far apart — Aluma in Uganda and Nguyen in Vietnam — they both experienced firsthand the devastating fallout from brutal governing regimes.

Fleeing the murderous, military rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Aluma declared refugee status in South Sudan and remained there for six years after his family escaped a 1979 civil war.

He came to Saskatchewan “basically by invitation” through an organization called World University Service of Canada (WUSC).

Advertisement

Article content

WUSC works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to “identify refugee students all across the world whose education at a university level has been disrupted by regional war,” he explains.

In 1987, then-University of Regina professor Penthes Rubrecht was among a group of educators who privately sponsored him to immigrate to Canada. Rubrecht taught in the U of R’s English as a Second Language program.

Aluma spent 11 years working at Viterra before joining his current employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, in 2007. That year was also the start of another new endeavour: He and Nguyen began a relationship after they found each other through an online Christian dating website.

At the time, he was living in Regina and she was in Langley, B.C.

Like her husband, Nguyen didn’t declare refugee status when she arrived in Canada.

However, she regularly worked with refugees in Vancouver after completing a bachelor program in psychology at Trinity Western University. Her brother-in-law, a man whom her sister met when he was doing missionary work in Vietnam, sponsored her to study in Canada.

Nguyen worked as a counsellor at Vancouver’s Vietnamese Alliance Church, helping refugees who fled her birth country as the communist leaders of its northern region moved south to take Saigon.

“Most of those who ended up in Vancouver ended up associating with the church that was a Vietnamese background church,” Aluma explains.

Advertisement

Article content

“There were a lot of refugees in that church that were having problems settling and accessing social services … Lydia was helping them navigate through the bureaucracy … helping get their children registered in schools and all those kind of basic things that new people struggle with.”

Few counsellors in Vancouver “were qualified and could speak Vietnamese,” he continues. “Lydia was a nice fit because she was able to speak English and Vietnamese and she was able to help the refugees that way.”

After she and Aluma met online in 2007, their relationship grew the long-distance way — through frequent phone calls. They decided to marry in 2010, first doing a justice-of-the-peace ceremony in April 2010, and then hosting a religious ceremony with their church community.

That was in August 2010, at which time 10 of Nguyen’s friends surprised the couple with a game to test the depth of his knowledge about her.

They all lined up with Lydia behind a curtain that only revealed their bare toes.

“They put me brutally through a hard time,” Aluma jokes. “I sweated and sweated, because I never really paid attention to toes on my wife closely before.”

And yet, the toes he picked turned out to be Lydia’s. She commends him for not choosing one of her friend’s “fancy” painted toenails.

“I didn’t colour my toenails. Nothing,” she says with a smile. “It was just like this. It’s my wedding day, very simple.”

Nguyen moved to Regina in 2011 and began working at Cosmopolitan Learning Centre.

Advertisement

Article content

Ponziano Aluma, left, and Lydia Nguyen sit together behind their family home in Regina on May 18, 2021.
Ponziano Aluma, left, and Lydia Nguyen sit together behind their family home in Regina on May 18, 2021. Photo by BRANDON HARDER /Regina Leader-Post

Two years later, the couple set out on a new journey — to adopt Aluma’s nephews, Ben and Emmanuel, now 13 and 10 respectively.

It wasn’t until May 2019 that the boys arrived in Regina with their uncle-turned-father and Lydia greeted them at the bottom of YQR’s best-used stairway.

“It took us six years to complete this adoption,” Aluma says. “During these six years, we spent a lot of money, both here and in Uganda, because these boys’ mother, who was my sister … she disappeared and there was no dead body, no grave.

“To prove these boys were orphans was a challenge.”

Aluma says his sister — a victim of Uganda’s strife — was twice raped and became pregnant, contracting HIV the first time. Due to the virus’s progression and her struggle with mental illness, she put the boys in state care while also seeking help in a mental health hospital.

When their mother disappeared in 2010, the boys were living separately, one in an orphanage and the other with relatives who couldn’t handle the duties of raising a kid.

Aluma and Nguyen’s shared commitment to Christianity and family prompted them to consider adoption. After several denials, many flights between Canada and Uganda, and thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees, the couple finally succeeded.

Lydia Nguyen, left, Ponziano Aluma, right back, and their sons Emmanuel Makpe, front left, and Benedict Kivuli stand behind their family home in Regina on May 18, 2021.
Lydia Nguyen, left, Ponziano Aluma, right back, and their sons Emmanuel Makpe, front left, and Benedict Kivuli stand behind their family home in Regina on May 18, 2021. Photo by BRANDON HARDER /Regina Leader-Post

In the midst of that struggle, Aluma published a book in 2014 titled We’re Here, Now What?

The project — tracing his own experiences as an immigrant — provided an initial income stream but, as the adoption process dragged on, they needed more money.

Advertisement

Article content

Nguyen found a way to contribute through her love of cooking. The first opportunity came at Westminster United Church’s Newcomer Market.

“I said: ‘I come from Vietnam and I know how to make spring rolls. I can bring my spring rolls there,’” says Nguyen, who – much to her surprise — sold out the entire batch.

Another surprise came through her job at Cosmo. She’d sometimes bring her spring rolls to the office for co-workers but her manager eventually told her he wanted to buy some.

Nguyen kept that in mind and decided to give the business a go in 2019 after lots of adjustments to the recipe and plenty of feedback from friends, co-workers and customers.

“The more I do, the more people want to buy, want to buy, want to buy,” she says, recalling the early days of Good Morning Springrolls Plus. “I thought, ‘It’s a good way (to make money) so I can do fundraising’” for the adoption.

Nguyen continues to sell them every week at the Regina Farmers’ Market. Warehouse District grocer Local & Fresh stocks the spring rolls, too.

That first year, she grossed $29,000, which she reinvested to buy a truck, trailer, generator and six refrigerators. Nguyen predicted further growth heading into 2020 but sales dropped to $23,000 from COVID-19.

She and Aluma — now Canadian citizens — plan to keep working even though both parents are hovering around age 60.

Nguyen runs the spring-roll business on the side, calling it her hobby and her passion. Aluma is working on another book, which is set for publication soon, he hopes.

Nguyen underscores that their continued work is to support their boys.

“When I adopted (them), we had to take responsibility for the rest of our lives,” she says. “We cannot stop. I want to make sure the boys grow up like a good citizen.

“What they receive from us, I want them to look at us as an example. When they grow up, I want them to become successful men and have our back. Because what we do for them now, in the future they will do the same for (their) children.”

Ponziano Aluma, centre, hands a little girl a freezie while Lydia Nguyen holds out napkins while serving customers at their stand at the Regina farmers’ market on May 15, 2021.
Ponziano Aluma, centre, hands a little girl a freezie while Lydia Nguyen holds out napkins while serving customers at their stand at the Regina farmers’ market on May 15, 2021. Photo by BRANDON HARDER /Regina Leader-Post

eradford@postmedia.com

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Source link

Sign in

Sign Up

Forgotten Password

Job Quick Search

Cart

Cart