Lisa Polidori
Lisa Polidori

As a 6-year-old girl, Trang Do would rise at 5 a.m. daily with her grandfather to walk a mile to Mass in their small town south of Saigon.

Just four years later, she faced a faith crisis.

 “My uncle warned us this boat could just hold 39 people,” the 10-year-old Trang Do thought to herself as she crammed onto the wooden boat deck. “But now — we have 110 people on it?” 

That frightened girl and the other 109 passengers had just escaped in the morning darkness from Communist Vietnam on a fishing boat into the South China Sea in 1979.

Three days into the journey Trang, who would later take the name Lisa, saw shark fins emerge above the water behind the vessel. She edged herself to the side of the craft and noticed that the boat was so weighed down that the rim was just inches above the choppy ocean waters.

All those aboard were Catholics who had fled from the same village. Many were praying openly on the deck for survival. On day four, they saw a French oil tanker on the horizon. The tanker’s captain soon spotted the fishing boat. The big ship slowly turned and as it approached the fishing boat, a French-speaking Vietnamese woman shouted up to the sailors on the tanker, “Please take us onboard — or we will die!”

As the sailors lowered a ladder to the boat, Trang and the other children and then women scrambled onto the tanker.  As the last of Vietnamese stepped off, the little fishing vessel dangerously listed and Trang and others gasped at what happened next — two black whales emerged from beneath each side of the boat.

The whales had seemingly stabilized the craft during the perilous final minutes and as the last man safely climbed up onto the tanker deck, the whales swam away, and the fishing boat slowly sank into the sea.

The oil tanker would transport the new passengers to a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Two and half years later, Trang and her family would reunite with two uncles who had made a life in Portland. 

Trang did not speak a word of English. Fortunately, Catholic Charities connected her family to Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Northeast Portland where her family found support. She learned English and made friends.

She would adopt the American name Lisa and graduate from Madison High School and later Portland State University with a degree in business, accounting and finance and a minor in psychology.  

She would marry Dan Polidori, a Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon administrator. They and their 12-year-old daughter attend Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Southeast Portland.   

Many Vietnamese immigrant families encouraged their kids in America to go into a profession or business and Polidori tried working for a title company for a year, but the memory of her own experience pulled her to the Asian Family Center and then to Multnomah County Student Attendance Initiative in 1998.

Polidori is now a county services coordinator who trains case managers to help families with children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her favorite task is interacting one-on-one with families to navigate crises.

 “One of the moms came in with a pot of flowers for me. She said that without my support they wouldn’t know what to do. That’s why I work here,” Polidori said. “That passion is rooted in God giving me a second chance on that boat in the South China Sea. I was meant to do this work.” 

Her commitment continues. Pope Francis’ recent exhortation calling on Catholics to welcome refugees and migrants is being heard.

Many of Oregon’s Vietnamese still have loved ones in Communist Vietnam and provide the necessary sponsorship to get them safely to the United States.   

“Hundreds of Vietnamese refugees are coming to Oregon every year,” Polidori concluded. “Helping those families makes me the happiest.”