Mother Mushroom: A Journey of Advocacy, Motherhood, and Asylum

By Camila Rice-Aguilar

Human Rights First’s former client, Quynh Nguyen, tells her story of dissent, motherhood, and human rights advocacy in Vietnam, which eventually led to her imprisonment and to seek asylum in the U.S. You can read the full Q&A here.

Quynh Nguyen is a woman of many titles: human rights defender, writer, political dissident, “traitor,” advocate, asylee, mother. Also known by her pen name ‘Me Nam (“Mother Mushroom”), Quynh has dedicated her life to advocating for human rights in Vietnam and forging a better world for her children.

Quynh was born in Nha Trang, a coastal city situated in the south-central region of Vietnam. Growing up under the Vietnamese Communist Party, she pursued a “conventional” career first as a civil servant and local tour guide.

“My journey into writing began with the inspiration of becoming a mother,” she said. During her pregnancy, she started documenting her experiences to share with her future children. However, it was a pivotal moment during a medical examination that ignited her passion for defending human rights.

“I witnessed medical staff mistreating an ethnic minority individual, an incident that stirred deep questions within me,” Quynh explained. “I found myself challenging the unfair treatment and questioning the disparity between the money we paid into the health system and the quality of service received. This incident prompted me to delve deeper into my country’s welfare policies and compelled me to seek a deeper understanding of Vietnam’s history and societal issues beyond the confines of traditional media.”

Quynh began blogging in 2006, the same year her daughter was born. She established the Vietnamese Bloggers Network (VBN) – a space to share videos capturing people’s opinions and life experiences throughout the country. In her blog, ‘Me Nam’ (Mother Mushroom), she covered a range of topics that reflected her concerns about social issues affecting her people. Among these pressing matters, she wrote about educational welfare policies, environmental issues, the relationship between Vietnam and China, and the torture of individuals in Vietnamese police stations.

Quynh’s advocacy came at a cost. On September 2nd, 2009, the police arrested and detained her for 10 days for blogging about a secretive Chinese-owned development in Vietnam’s highlands. Fearful of the repercussions on her family, she agreed to shut down her blog and stop writing, but the police continued to harass her and even denied her a passport to work. Quynh knew she could not remain silent. In 2010, she interviewed with CNN and decided to become an activist.

“As I delved into these issues, I witnessed firsthand the injustices suffered by my own relatives due to flawed land policies and the proliferation of misinformation by the media. The realization of the stifled freedom of speech, particularly concerning Vietnam’s relationship with China, struck me profoundly,” she said.

Quynh’s experience compelled her to transition into a human rights defender. Her work as a human rights defender earned her many awards, including Human Rights Watch’s 2010 Hellman/Hammett grant, Civil Rights Defenders’ 2015 Defender of the Year, and the U.S. State Department’s 2017 International Women of Courage Award.

On October 10th, 2016, Quynh was arrested by Vietnamese authorities once more and spent 7 months in prison without access to legal counsel or visiting rights from her family. Her daughter was ten years old and her son only four when she was taken away. At her trial in 2017, she was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for blogging and interviewing with foreign media, which the government deemed as ‘propaganda against the state.’ 

“The most heartbreaking thing for me to consider during my 10-year sentence was the thought of spending all my time in prison without seeing my daughter grow into a young woman and my son enter his teenage years,” she said. “My arrest and conviction were emblematic of the government’s crackdown on dissenting voices and its suppression of freedom of expression and advocacy for human rights in Vietnam.” 

She recalled endless days of isolation, cold, and a windowless cell barred from contact with her family. In her few interactions with fellow inmates, she witnessed police officers brutalizing many of the prisoners, which only strengthened her resolve to advocate for human rights, particularly within the prison system.

“Throughout this ordeal, the unwavering support of my loved ones and the solidarity of fellow activists sustained me, reminding me of the enduring power of the human spirit in the face of adversity,” she said.

Following her detention, the Vietnamese Bloggers Network, members of the Vietnamese community, the U.S. State Department, and numerous international human rights organizations launched a concerted campaign advocating for her release. Quynh was released on October 18th, 2018 after two years behind bars. She, her mother, and her two children traveled to the United States shortly after and applied for asylum.

“I am profoundly grateful for their tireless efforts, which ultimately facilitated my release from Vietnamese prison and enabled me to seek refuge in the United States,” she expressed, “My journey from incarceration to freedom in America stands as a testament to the collective determination of all those who tirelessly fight for human rights in Vietnam.”

With the help of Human Rights First’s pro bono program, Quynh and her two children were represented by a legal team from K&L Gates and were granted asylum in 2021. Her mother was granted asylum shortly after.

“I am immensely grateful to Human Rights First and the dedicated team at K&L Gates… for their unwavering commitment and expertise in handling our asylum cases. Their assistance was instrumental in navigating the complexities of the asylum process and securing a path to safety and protection in the United States.”

Now established in Houston, Quynh shared how much has changed in the lives of her and her family. Despite some of the hardships of assimilation, asylum in the U.S. has presented a newfound opportunity for her to continue her advocacy for human rights in Vietnam without the constant fear of detention or harassment against her family. “It’s like a new chapter has opened up, allowing me to pursue my activism with greater freedom and security,” she said.

Her daily life now consists of spending time with her children and continuing to engage with the Vietnamese community, disseminating information that may not be readily available through traditional media channels, and fostering dialogue within the community. Quynh has inspired many young people in Vietnam; they view her as a symbol of freedom. She is determined to continue her human rights advocacy for them, for her children, and for her country.

When asked what asylum means to her and her children, Quynh replied, “As an activist, I never imagined that seeking asylum in another country would become a necessity. However, asylum in the United States represents a new beginning for my children and me. It offers them the chance to grow up in an environment where human rights are upheld and protected, providing them with greater opportunities for a brighter future. For me, asylum means the opportunity to study and continue pursuing my dream in a safer and more supportive environment.”

While writing and advocacy are incredibly fulfilling parts of Quynh’s life, one of her greatest loves is being a mother. “As a mother, the most extraordinary joy is witnessing the daily growth and safety of my children. Being both a nurturing presence and a friend to them as they journey toward becoming kind, compassionate individuals is what I cherish most,” she shared. “The boundless love that comes with motherhood fuels an unwavering determination to protect my children, fostering hope for a bright and promising future for them.”

Quynh’s daughter was recently accepted to Boston University, which the whole family has celebrated. Quynh said she always dreamed for her children to grow up in a world where they can pursue their dreams and aspirations freely and express their thoughts without fear of persecution or harassment. “Like countless other mothers, my ultimate wish is for my children to grow up safely. Their happiness and well-being are my greatest priorities.”

Read the full interview and Q&A with Quynh below.

Refugee Voices


  • Camila Rice-Aguilar

Published on May 12, 2024


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