From refugee to business owner, she looks to export hope

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Thursday, October 7, 2004

Making a new life in America has been a challenge for Xanh “Lilly” Pyle, but one she has welcomed.

She was just 19 when she arrived in the United States as a soldier bride in 1972. She spoke so little English that her favorite television show was “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” about wild animals. “They don’t speak, I don’t speak,” Pyle explained.

When her marriage ended in divorce eight years later, she worked several jobs while raising her two children. She also went to school to earn her high school equivalency diploma and to become a cosmetologist. Today, she has a hair salon in Portland’s Old Port and has put her children through college.

Pyle, an elegant, petite woman with a determined, no-nonsense personality, bristles when she hears people say the war in Vietnam was a mistake. “It was the right thing,” she said. “It gave me my life. I want to say ‘Thank you.’ “

Two return trips to Vietnam have made her feel especially grateful for her opportunities here. In fact, the contrast between what she has and what the women in her home village lack has spurred her to launch an effort to help them. She has started a new nonprofit organization, the Vietnamese Hope Foundation, to raise funds to do just that.

The fledgling organization was established to help women get an education or start a small business. So far, Pyle has collected $1,800 – from her loyal hair salon clients – which she gave to a grammar school in her home village of Dong Ha. She also has donated about $1,600 of her own money to help several women.

Her foundation is to be a personal one, with Pyle planning to fly to Vietnam and interview prospective aid recipients herself. Pyle also plans to personally deliver the funds to needy villagers, or have members of the foundation’s board, which is still being formed, deliver the money to ensure it reaches intended recipients.

One member of her board is Andrew Campbell, a Waldoboro lawyer, who has worked with disabled Vietnam veterans. He said he is getting involved because Pyle “has a driving vision I’d like to support . . . Lilly is a very nice person. I hope she can succeed.”

A little bit goes a long way in Vietnam, where the average salary is $20 a month, Pyle said. For example, $200 she gave to a woman with a sick daughter helped save the girl from having her leg amputated, Pyle said.

Pyle’s memories of growing up in Dong Ha are a mixture of happiness and horror. The simple village – she grew up with no running water or electricity – was next to a strategic inland waterway where the U.S. military built a boat launch.

As a child, she made friends with many American soldiers. But the village also was the target of raids by the Viet Cong. With the men away fighting, Pyle at age 14 had to help guard the village with an automatic rifle. She and other children would race to put out burning debris from rocket attacks and flares before it ignited the straw roofs of houses. Sometimes, they were too late. “When a rocket hit and the people burned, it smelled so bad,” Pyle said. The smell of food cooking now can occasionally trigger that awful memory, she said.

Dong Ha was evacuated and the family – Pyle is the oldest of 10 children – moved to a refugee camp. Pyle came to the United States, but her family returned to their village when the war ended. She wasn’t able to visit until 1995, when she saw her ailing father for the last time. She made a second visit in January, to have her son and daughter meet their grandmother for the first time.

While there, she was struck by the plight of women in the very poor village. Their husbands, unable to find jobs, often drink and beat them, Pyle said. She hopes that money from the foundation will free the women from dependence on abusive partners by allowing them to do such things as establish a small sewing business or rent a spot in the market – the cost is a princely $200 to $300 per year – to sell their chickens or ducks.

Pyle also plans to use the money to do such simple but effective things as fill bomb craters where mosquitoes breed. “My goal is to help my village first and then to help other villages nearby,” she said.

More information about Pyle’s efforts is available at:

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:



Cape woman helps Vietnamese neighbors

By Jeff Inglis, Editor
Copyright © 2005

Cape Elizabeth (April 1): 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 is 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 website,, 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 request 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 aid. “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.”