EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a monthly feature focused on “gems” in the Sea Coast Echo’s circulation area. This feature appears the first Wednesday of each month.
The Vietnamese New Year is celebrated this year on Jan. 25. In addition to looking forward to the year ahead, it is appropriate to also look back on the misery endured by those refugees who now call America home and we call fellow Americans.
The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 triggered a mass exodus of refugees escaping the wrath of the North Vietnam Army. Executions of South Vietnamese have been estimated to be about 65,000. Approximately one million were sent to “re-education” camps where an estimated 165,000 died. Accurate numbers of South Vietnamese who attempted to flee on overcrowded boats will never be known, but estimates are as high as 1.5 million. The number of those who didn’t survive varies from 50,000 to 200,000.
The horrors of history fade with each successive generation and now several generations of Vietnamese-Americans have been born in America. They have no first-hand knowledge of their ancestral homeland, but family members still live who can tell them of their escape and the stories of those who didn’t survive the journey.
The United States accepted 823,000 Vietnamese refugees. Out of the 823,000 stories of immeasurable pain, suffering, and persecution, two are shared here.
Father Joseph Vu remembers escaping communist rule when he was a young boy.
“I was 8 when Vietnam was divided, north and south, in 1954 and my family fled to the south," Vu said.
Saigon became his new home and he excelled as a student.
“I graduated from Saigon University in 1969, took the mandatory military training for six months, and got the rank of lieutenant. I became a high school teacher and enjoyed my life until the communists took over Saigon in 1975,” Father Joseph recounted.
Educated people have been the first threat communists have attempted to neutralize in every country they’ve conquered, and South Vietnam was no exception.
“They announced that all of us learned capitalism and now they would give us the chance, especially those of us with a rank in the military, to study for 10 days to understand about socialism, to give us the idea of how to exploit the people," Vu said. "But after 10 days they said they would take care of us until we became good citizens. For three years I had to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, not in prison, but in what they called a re-education camp.”
Father Joseph’s task day after day was to turn forests into agricultural fields.
“We cut trees and then planted sweet potato and corn, but during the harvest time they moved us to another forest so we couldn’t see all the food," he said.
Though it was their back-breaking labor that made the food possible, they were starved.
“Every day they gave us two or three sweet potatoes or cassava. That’s all. And meat we had twice a year, on the 1st day of the lunar new year and on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday," Vu said. "One cow for 1,000 prisoners. Each piece was very small. Luckily they allowed my mother to come and visit every six months or so and she brought some food and medicine for me. I got malaria in that time but with the medicine she brought I survived it."
Little food and bouts of malaria dropped Joseph’s weight down to an emaciated 80 pounds, but he lived.
“Two of my friends died in my arms,” Father Joseph related sadly.
Father Joseph grew up in a devout Catholic family but his faith had diminished.
“My parents went to church three times a day and said the rosary before bed. They set good examples for us even though it was boring," Vu said. "I graduated from high school and went to work and went to church less and less. Many times my Mom cried.”
A group of Catholics in the camp praying together in secret changed Father Joseph’s life.
“In prison, it was a hopeless situation," he said. "I saw a small group go off together at night, pretending to go to the latrine but actually finding a dark spot in order to pray together.”
One had a small Bible, a danger in itself to possess.
“They tore a piece out and gave one verse to each other every day. That is how I learned the Bible," Vu said. "I prayed with that group in secret every night and that is when I restored my faith.”
After three years, Father Joseph was released from the camp. He stayed with family for a few months to recover his health enough to attempt an escape.
“It cost $2,000 to get on a boat. It was very expensive for a poor country but it was for freedom," he said.
After four days and four nights on a small boat with 55 people, they landed in Thailand where the reception was less than welcoming.
“After a week the Thai police told us to go back to the boat. Our engine was broken and they said don’t worry, they would tow us. We trusted them but when they got us out on the open sea they cut the rope," Vu said. "We had no food and little water. Each person got four spoonfuls of water a day. One woman was so hopeless she jumped overboard but miraculously after five hours some fishermen found her and brought her in to a refugee camp. After 10 days a strong wind blew us back into Thailand and the first thing we did was to burn our boat so they had to accept us.”
Father Joseph stayed in a refugee camp for seven months until a friend in Chicago sponsored his move to America. At age 33 he could now embark on his dream of becoming a missionary priest with the Society of the Divine Word. After his ordination in 1990 he was assigned to the Philippines for 12 years, 12 years in Memphis working with the black community, and now eight years based in Bay St. Louis and traveling across the country preaching to fellow Vietnamese-Americans.
Father Joseph’s life could have ended in Vietnam at any twist or turn, but those times have been overshadowed by his successful life post-Vietnam. “Sometime I still have a dream the communist police are coming to arrest me, but now, thank God, it’s fading away," he said.
Father Joseph Dang was born in South Vietnam in the '60s.
“If my parents had stayed in North Vietnam they probably would have been put to death because they stood against Ho Chi Minh and his compatriots,” Father Dang stated.
When he was 10, South Vietnam was overtaken by the communists and the arrests began. He saw his pastor arrested and taken away.
“There were many others arrested too. Former soldiers, officers, businessmen, Buddhist monks, and teachers,” Father Dang related, drawing on his childhood memories.
Father Dang’s parents were successful traders but their social status changed overnight.
“The communists changed the currency so everyone would be equal. All the money we had previously was of no use," Dang said. "If you had gold or diamonds you might survive.”
When Father Dang was 12, his parents paid for him and his siblings to join 50 others on a small boat to attempt the dangerous voyage to Singapore.
“We made it to Singapore, saw the beautiful harbor and city but were not allowed entry. We lost hope," he said.
They eventually landed in Malaysia where they were not welcomed warmly. Having heard of others’ experiences, they sank their boat to make it more difficult to expel them.
“We were in a small village and we stayed about three months and then moved out to a UN refugee camp on an island for six more months," he said.
Father Dang and his siblings were then sponsored by a priest who was the brother of Father Dang’s sister-in-law. Father Dang’s parents eventually joined the rest of their family in Australia. He acknowledges that the survival of his entire immediate family was the exception.
“Some of my cousins died. They say 50 percent didn’t make it, either from hunger, pirate attacks, or boats sinking. That’s the risk you had to take," he said.
Father Dang met some Society of the Divine Word missionaries in his parish in Melbourne who changed the course of his life.
“They would come out and help the Vietnamese refugees and transport them to Masses. I saw the spirit in them. They wanted to help the poor and the marginalized. I wanted to be a part of that," Dang said. "They helped me so I wanted to help people in return.”
Father Dang lived his formative years in Australia beginning in 1977 and completed his seminary studies and ordination before leaving for America in 1993. Most of his memories are those of growing up in Australia and his time as an adult in America. He was eager to return to his birthplace to visit the land he left at the age of 12 but he felt more like a tourist rather than a native.
“It was good to go back to my old village and the church where I was baptized and confirmed and the house where I was born," he said. "But I don’t remember much. I was born in Vietnam but I can say I’m a stranger to my own country. It’s ok. I accept that.”
Father Dang is now based at the Bay St. Louis Seminary where he runs the retreat center. Father Joseph leads the Cursillo movement for Catholic Vietnamese nationally. They are charged with helping others find peace with their past, a renewal of their faith, and hope for the future through God’s grace; spiritual pursuits both men are uniquely qualified to lead as a result of their painful pasts.
If you would like to share a story from your life or would like to nominate someone to be a “Gem,” e-mail Bill at: firstname.lastname@example.org.