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Count this Vietnam refugee fortunate

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Chris Thomas' family lost everything in Vietnam. She's discovered a new life in Tennessee. TMP/M. Willard
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and communists took over the country, Chris Thomas’ father lost everything he had worked for.

Thomas’ father was in the import-export business and the Communists took everything when North and South Vietnam reunified after 30 years of war.

“Life was difficult in Vietnam. Just to have a future – for us to have a better future – they wanted to leave,” Thomas said about her parents.

Her parents, Thomas and four siblings left in 1979 on a small fishing boat with 400 other refugees.

Thomas, 45, tells her life story with the slight smile of a lucky woman, sitting in her new alterations shop on Old Fort Parkway.

“I’m very fortunate …” she said. “I always considered myself lucky in life.”

Fortunate doesn’t begin to express Thomas’ trek across the South China Sea to a refugee camp in Indonesia, surviving cramped conditions, Thai pirate attacks and starvation.

Her family finally landed in Florida, where her father’s brother lived, and moved to Madison, Wisc., where her father worked with the state’s refugee program.

In order to support the family her mother got a job as a seamstress at a large retail store, but was laid off and ended up opening her own alterations shop in 1981.

“That’s how I learned,” she said. As the oldest daughter, she was expected to help her mother with the store.

“After school I would go to the store and help my mom,” she said, adding she has continued sewing throughout her adult life, but just opened her own store – Alterations by Chris – at the beginning of November.

Thomas said she does clothing alterations for men’s, women’s and children’s clothes. She also loves to do bridal wear and sewed her sister’s wedding gown.

“My sister calls me the Asian Martha Stewart,” she said with a smile. “I hope the next one I do is for my daughter.”

In fact it was her daughter, Amanda, who brought Thomas to Tennessee from Wisconsin.

In 2008 Amanda started on a political science degree at Vanderbilt University and the recently divorced Thomas found no reason to stay in the great, white north.

“It’s cold in Wisconsin,” Thomas said. “My only child had gone away for college, there’s no reason to stay.”

So she packed up and moved to Murfreesboro, where she found a job as an office manager at LifeCare Family Services in Nashville and her future husband, David Thomas.

Thomas’ husband also works at LifeCare, a mental health and counseling service, as the clinical director.

But the happy couple found a conflict between the personal and professional relationships, leading Thomas to decide to go back to her roots and open an alterations shop, like her mother.

“I decided when I came here to get rid of all the stress in my life,” she said.

And with her past, she thinks she deserves a little relaxation.

She said she knows what it’s like to be wealthy and poor, and every thing in between.

“There were days (at the refugee camp) when we had nothing to eat,” she said, adding food, sanitation and clothing were scarce in the 10 months her family spent in the camp.

“But that’s the price of freedom,” Thomas said.

Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or mwillard@murfreesboropost.com.

More Info …
Alterations by Chris
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday
9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday
St. Andrews Place, 2705 Old Fort Pkwy.
Read more from:
Alterations by Chris, Business, Chris Thomas, Vietnamese Boat People
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