From boat refugee to successful restaurant owner

She is known as chef on a popular morning TV show, as a successful restaurant owner who has opened Denmark’s eyes and taste buds to the Vietnamese kitchen, and as cookbook author that has improved the culinary lives of thousands. But if time was rewound almost 40 years, the future looked somewhat uncertain for Anh Lê.

The year was 1979, and the communist regime had for years driven Vietnamese people from their homes in the north. Anh Lê’s parents had to make a hard decision and ultimately ended up fleeing their home as well. The family successfully escaped the country by boat, but only on their third attempt.

They were sailing for two weeks from country to country, but no one was willing to receive them. Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to take them, until Anh Lê’s father deliberately crashed the boat into a reef in Indonesia, so the country had no other choice but to accept them.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today, had I not grown up in Denmark.”

Anh Lê was only five years old at the time, when the family was placed in a refugee camp and had to share a small tent with three other families. They slept on the damp floor every night, until after three months they received the message that Anh Lê still vividly remembers today. They were told that they would be resettled in Denmark.

”It was amazing. It meant everything. I wouldn’t be where I am today, had I not grown up in Denmark.”

Nevertheless, adjustment to life in Denmark was not easy. Anh Lê was used to the warmth of Vietnam where most days were spent outside, hanging out in the streets, talking to your neighbors, and sharing meals with friends. The contrast was immediately obvious, as soon as the family arrived in cold Denmark, where people’s daily lives happened mostly indoors.

“Unless you are welcomed inside, you don’t get to know people,” says Anh Lê.

Anh Lê believes that is important that Danes reach out and give a helping hand to the refugees arriving in Denmark, especially if they are expected to become part of society and get acquainted with the Danish way of living.

”We can’t say to people, that they have to learn and respect Danish culture, unless we show them what that is.”

When her family arrived in Aalborg in Northern part of Denmark in 1979, they were paired with a “contact family” – a normal, working-class family with three children. It was in their home that Anh Lê learnt to eat the traditional dessert “Rødgrød”, learnt to decorate a Christmas tree and discovered the joy of Danish open sandwiches. And it was the neighbors, living in the flat above, who introduced Anh Lê’s family to the Danish community gardens where their Danish network was able to grow.

”We can’t say to people, that they have to learn and respect Danish culture, unless we show them what that is. It’s not up to the politicians to do this, but all of us out in society.”

The helping hand must also be accompanied by a set of responsibilities from the refugees’ side, according to Anh Lê, as refugees need to be active in the integration process: learning a language, getting an education or a job. Seeing them as victims or hiding them away in ghetto areas will not work, and this is where the integration efforts have failed in many cases, she thinks.

“Refugees are not choosey, when they arrive here.”

Idleness and isolation are neither beneficial nor productive to anyone –refugees need to have access to the labor market and work side by side with Danish colleagues in order to learn the work-culture and to find a purpose with their lives. This is, she says, exactly what happened to her parents, even though they had to have several jobs to make ends meet.

”Refugees are not choosey, when they arrive here. No refugees who have experienced life and death will come and say: I want this and that only.”

Today, Anh Lê is a world away from the refugee tent in Indonesia, but when pictures of refugees walking down the Danish freeways or fighting for their lives in crowded rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean filled the media a couple of years ago, the memories of her own experiences gushed out of her.

”As a refugee you can never forget your experiences. All of it is stuck inside you somewhere. We will all be affected by what has happened to us for the rest of our lives. But from that, I have gained a strong will, that I use to always move forward in my life,” she says.


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