Copyright (c) 2003, Globe Newspaper Company
February 22, 2003
Section: Metro/Region

Francie Latour, Globe Staff

When the drifting refugee raft from Saigon hadn't reached land after four days, the vessel's captain went to deliver some bad news to one of the youngest aboard. If the boat did not hit land the next day, he told 15-year-old Vy Truong, he would have to kill the boy to make more room on the boat - and presumably, to make food.

Death had been calling Truong for hours. Lost under stars that should have been compasses, he and 64 others floated and starved, drinking the same water that cooled the boat's engine. But the next day, between the blue sky and bluer ocean, they spotted a black dot. It was the southern most island off Malaysia.

From that moment, the story of the young asylum-seeker has been one of a man willing his own luck into being.

Yesterday, Truong's 15-year journey from Communist Vietnam to the South China seas to Houston and finally to Boston took another unlikely turn, as he was sworn in as one of the state's first Vietnamese-American prosecutors.

In a sign of the growing importance of Boston's Vietnamese community, the teenager who learned to mouth the English language by watching "Mister Roger's Neighborhood" was sworn in as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, surrounded by city officials and local Vietnamese leaders inside Dorchester's newly minted Vietnamese community center.

Like the day of the center's ribbon-cutting, Truong and others said, the induction of the state's second Vietnamese prosecutor marked a turning point for the city's nearly 11,000 Vietnamese immigrants, a population that has more than doubled in 10 years, and which has its greatest concentration in Dorchester.

"I think it's very hard for an immigrant to do anything in this country," Truong said, clutching his speech moments before the ceremony began. "However, I believe that it can be accomplished if that person has determination, and faith. I just don't feel like I've done enough. I want to do more."

The life of an assistant district attorney may be one of long hours, little pay, and grinding frustration, the low moments of which were invoked repeatedly before Truong stood to take his oath. And as he raised his right hand, Truong gave a twist to the classic tale of the American dream, taking a $16,000 paycut from his previous job at the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department.

But the experience was one few county prosecutors are likely ever to have: It began with the City Council's recent declaration of Feb. 18 - the originally scheduled date of his swearing-in - as Vy Truong Day in Boston.

"Vy's swearing-in is . . . a signal not only to the Vietnamese community of which he is a part, but to everyone in the city that my office, both literally and figuratively, will speak for you," said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.

While he called the city's diversity an asset, Conley said the instinctive fear of many immigrant groups toward law enforcement - fear nurtured by the purges and corruption of their homeland dictatorships - has kept crime victims and witnesses to crimes from coming forward.

"Whether a victim is rendered voiceless through an act of violence or abuse, or through language barriers that make justice seem unattainable, our job, and soon Vy's job, is to give voice to the voiceless," Conley said.

Speakers who traced Truong's path to Boston - from refugee camp, to childhood outcast, to honors student who finished high school in three years, to law student mentored by financial titan Peter Lynch - many who know him, doubted that Truong's trajectory had reached its height.

"This guy is going to go places, Vy is," said Lori Zarkower, a financial aid official at Boston University who nominated him as student employee of the year. He became the youngest BU student to earn the award, mastering a maze of federally regulated financial aid packages just six years after entering the country.

"He stood out then, and he still stands out. . . . He is a man of ambition and perseverance," Zarkower said.

Yet as a child, Truong said perseverance was as foreign to him as the experience of freedom. In 1988, his mother had scraped together about $2,000 in gold, just enough to buy her oldest son the chance for escape. But after those first few days, bobbing in a stolen raft on the South China Sea, Truong said, "I was basically begging God to let me die." When the captain came to tell him he would be killed on the fifth day, Truong said he thanked him, and waited for relief.

He had no idea how close he was to freedom. Once in Malaysia, he was quickly granted a visa after uttering the name of his father, who supported the US government and possibly worked in intelligence.

The visa led him to an uncle in Houston, and then to Massachusetts, after he noticed something similar about many of the names of the best US colleges: the word Boston.

Stepping to the podium in a navy suit and bright blue tie, Truong tried to recover from the avalanche of speeches and tributes in his name with a humble joke. Before his first full day in a courtroom, Truong asked his boss, "I wonder on Vy Truong Day, if I will have the day off."