She hardly sleeps and when she does, her children often lie near her, fearing someone “could take them away – or take me away”.

Helen Nguyen is the wife of Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen, an Orange County resident who has been imprisoned in Vietnam since July. He was arrested while touring the country and is under investigation for “actions” to overthrow the government.

But Helen Nguyen said her husband is an “ordinary man,” the main caretaker of their four daughters who cooks for them daily and drives them everywhere. She has tried to ease her children’s fear, she said, while longing for a way to show them and the world that their father is not forgotten.

She will get her chance on Tuesday when she attends President Donald Trump’s state-of-the-union speech in Washington as a guest of Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat newly elected to California’s 45th Congressional District. And the timing could not be better.

The spotlight allows Helen Nguyen, 47, to once again call attention to her husband’s plight, lobbying for urgent help in hopes of his release.

Porter, whose three children are close in age to Nguyen’s daughters, said the image of the two women as allies will send a strong message to Hanoi’s communist regime:

“We expect that American citizens are treated with respect abroad,” she said. “There are no formal charges against Michael and we demand his safe return.”

In inviting Helen Nguyen, Porter said she “wanted to bring someone who really represents our American values”, describing the operating room nurse who works at a Kaiser hospital in Anaheim and at the University of California-Irvine Medical Centre as “so devoted, juggling two jobs while being a single mother to her daughters and caring for her elderly parents. Look at her work ethic. Look at what she’s doing to push the family forward”.

Michael Nguyen, 55, has been away from his loved ones since leaving his home in Orange on June 27, intending to explore central Vietnam with friends before visiting relatives in the southern part of the country.

When he did not fly home as expected on July 16, his wife furiously searched for her husband using social media and tapping into Vietnamese-language media. News of his capture spread panic in Southern California’s immigrant community about the dangers of going to a country where human rights and basic freedoms are restricted.

Authorities in Vietnam arrested Michael Nguyen on July 7 when he departed Da Nang for Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, carrying just his clothes and more than US$1,200 for expenses. He is being held at the Phan Dang Luu detention centre, and according to family, is being investigated for violating Article 109 of the criminal code, with a goal to overthrow “the people’s administration” in a country where critics are routinely jailed.

Helen Nguyen said her husband’s absence forced her to sell his printing business while relying on nieces and nephews to pitch in, shepherding her children from class to after-school activities such as dance lessons and basketball. Once a month, when a consular officer from the US State Department visits Michael Nguyen in detention for about 20 minutes, his wife sends along vitamin C tablets, beef jerky and gummy bears. And she makes sure to go to Mass three times a week to pray for his health.

“He can only have dry foods – no writing materials, no books,” she said Friday, clocking out of one shift and on call for another. “The government is strictly monitoring his family members in Vietnam. I try not to mention these things in front of the kids but every week, I can hear them crying quietly in their rooms. That’s why this opportunity is so valuable – and I’m so grateful.”

“What’s remarkable about Helen is in spite of all this, she stays strong and she’s up all hours emailing legislators and trying to find more ways to help. Thank goodness she has her faith,” said Mark Roberts, Helen Nguyen’s brother-in-law and the family’s spokesman. “We believe a mistake has been made because Michael is definitely innocent.”

Porter agrees. She won the seat previously held by Republican Representative Mimi Walters and said she met with the Nguyen family before taking office in early January. Winning Michael Nguyen’s freedom is a priority for her and she calls it a bipartisan issue, adding: “I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. It was heartbreaking to hear the children talk about celebrating Christmas without their dad and not even get letters from him or be able to send letters to him.”

In Washington, when Porter is photographed with Helen Nguyen by her side, she hopes the images will symbolise “the way that our country stands for freedom and we expect that our partners around the world to try and develop and follow a system of law”.

“I wanted to bring someone that wasn’t about party bickering. Helen’s story resonates with me.”

The South China Morning Post - February 4, 2019