December 7

Settled in Seattle

For more than 113,000 foreign-born residents, Seattle is a place of opportunity, hope, and sanctuary. In our corner of the city, you’ll find them advocating for local youth, playing key roles in local business and activism, and even bringing a taste of their homeland to the neighborhood. These stories began across the globe, but all share a common thread—a community found in South Lake Union.

Dad’s Place

In bustling South Lake Union, hordes of hungry diners flock to Ba Bar to dive into bowls of pho filled with beef from Painted Hills Farm, crowd-favorite crispy Imperial Rolls, and fresh, herb-laden banh cuon (a type of rice-batter crêpe). The SLU spot is Eric and Sophie Banh’s second, with a third opening recently at University Village. The brother-and-sister restaurateurs are also responsible for two locations of popular Vietnamese restaurant Monsoon and high-end steak house Seven Beef. Forty years ago, none of this seemed possible when their family fled communist-controlled Vietnam. The resiliency instilled in them by their father, Thanh Minh, set them on their current path.

Born in Cambodia to poor Chinese parents, their father immigrated with his family to Vietnam when he was 15 to seek a better life. The senior Banh became a successful self-made businessman, eventually marrying Thi Phung Duong, and raising Sophie, Eric, and their four siblings in Saigon. Life was good.

Everything changed when the Vietnam War ended and the country was thrown into further chaos under the communist regime. The family was forced to flee in 1977—Sophie was 18 and Eric was 13. The Banhs would spend nearly two years at Pulau Bidong, a tiny island-turned-refugee-camp in Malaysia.

“When we escaped, we did not go together as a family,” Sophie says. “Me and one brother were on one boat, and Eric and the rest of the family were on another. We didn’t know if we were ever going to see each other again. We all hoped that maybe we would be reunited someday.”

They found each other on the island by chance and endured harsh conditions together. “There was no food really. Basic necessities were not met. We didn’t get any protein. There were so many people cramped in this small space. It was hell,” Eric says.

The family could not check the boxes for admittance to the United States—their father wasn’t in the military, had no post-secondary education, and had a large family. Luckily, they were welcomed to Edmonton, Alberta, in 1979 under Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s accepting immigration policies of the time.

In another new country, senior Banh had to start from scratch once again. He found a job as a janitor and worked long, grueling hours to support his family. But it was worth it—everyone was safe, and his children had access to good education and health care.

After Sophie and Eric graduated college and moved to Seattle in the 1990s, they were expected to find professions in finance and banking. But their risk-taking, hard-working, self-made father had left an undeniable impression on them. Seattle was lacking in food they liked to eat and—sensing a demand for Vietnamese food that wasn’t pho—they decided to take a risk and opened their first restaurant, Monsoon.

At first, their dad wasn’t impressed, but as Monsoon’s popularity grew, so did his approval. “Thirty years ago, people didn’t really aspire to become a chef. My father brought us to North America to get an education and find jobs as lawyers, doctors, dentists. We risked our lives and gave up everything for a chance to be successful,” Eric says.

Thanh Minh Banh passed away in 2009. Ba Bar, which the siblings opened in 2011, pays homage to their father (Ba is Vietnamese for dad). Eric and Sophie light up when they discuss him. “He loved to eat,” Eric recalls. “Our family functioned around food. It was a form of communication for us. Here, we serve food he loved. This place is for him.”

Escaping War

“I remember going on long vacations when I was young,” Shkelqim Kelmendi says. “I thought it was great to be out of school for weeks at a time. It wasn’t until later that I understood that my family had been in hiding.”

Kelmendi’s father and uncles were heavily involved in the resistance during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999. Former Yugoslavia was under Serbian control, and Albanians were being persecuted, tortured, and killed. For Kelmendi’s family, the tipping point came on April 1, 1999, when his grandparents, two uncles, and 14-year-old cousin were massacred. His parents immediately took him and his sister into hiding in the capital, where they were instructed to flee via the train system. Kelmendi was 8 years old. His sister was 10.

“We walked toward the train station with at least a thousand other people. We had blankets because it was cold and rainy. The goal was to leave the country. As a young child, the sea of people was overwhelming. A train pulled up, and there was a rush. It didn’t look like we were going to make it. Dad threw me through a window [onto the train], and I was separated from my family. I didn’t know whether or not they had made it at that point, but then we found each other on the train.”

The train stopped near an open field. For seven days, its passengers huddled together in the rain on the field, not knowing what would come next. They were finally allowed across the border into Gostivar, Macedonia, where Kelmendi and his family waited two months. After another three weeks in Albania, they returned home to Kosovo where they found their loved ones and learned more details.

Open war stopped shortly after that, and the Kelmendi family was granted asylum in the U.S. They landed in Dallas in August 1999.

“In a lot of ways, Dallas was scarier than being in a war zone,” Kelmendi says. “It was hard going from a very small developing country, where the tallest building you’d ever seen was maybe five stories. [In Dallas,] there were overpasses, the culture was so spread out, and none of us spoke English. We couldn’t even ask how to get to the store. The first two months in school, I just cried every day. You had no idea what anyone was saying. It took a long time to assimilate.”

Things slowly improved after they moved to the suburbs. Better schools, a supportive community, and time began to heal old wounds. Kelmendi and his sister learned English, and he eventually attended Southern Methodist University, which led to a job at the Federal Reserve. Attracted to a growing city with proximity to nature, he moved to South Lake Union in April 2016 with his fiancée (now wife).

Inspired by his parents, Kelmendi wants to make a difference in his community. “Throughout the war, no matter the cost, they would always help others. The older I get, the more I realize how much others put into me. I see the impact that something as small as helping someone figure out health insurance can have on others—it’s a huge impact on someone’s success in life.”

After attending a South Lake Union Community Council meeting, he realized the millennial workforce wasn’t represented. So he ran for a seat and won. “I am hoping to see more engagement from millennials in SLU. With the way things are going, ultimately, it’s our neighborhood. I want to instill an ownership mentality of the neighborhood. That can be difficult because there are a lot of people like me who moved here from somewhere else. But I like to tell people ‘Don’t be a passenger.’”

Story by Ethan Chung and Photographs by Carlton Canary.

At The Center

SLU is the geographical center of Seattle