Monday, September 14, 2015

Epilogue: Phi-Phi's Refugee Saga

I first heard Phi-Phi Chang Anderton's amazing refugee story 17 years ago, sitting on the one chair in their mostly-unfurnished living room, while Phi-Phi sat across the room on a hammock. We sometimes laugh about it now. A lot has changed since then. Their house is absolutely lovely, beautifully furnished, and they have filled it with three beautiful children. Our relationship has grown from fresh acquaintance to deeply rooted friendship. I don't live in California any more, so we visit mostly via texts and emails...and in person every December. 

There's one thing that hasn't changed, though, across time and miles, and that's how Phi-Phi's story has impacted me and lived with me over the years. I sat spell-bound as she shared with me her attempted boat escape, her captivity, the jungle, being separated from her mother, finally coming to the U.S. and all the rest.

The back-story of how I came to write about it now is pretty interesting. I was sitting in sacrament meeting (our Sunday worship service), the weekend before Pioneer Day (July 24 in Utah), singing pioneer hymns, and wondering how we could make that cherished tradition more timely, more global, more 21st century. Suddenly my thoughts were drawn to my dear friend Phi-Phi, and how she, too is a pioneer, and a remarkable one. In that instant the Lord told me to write HER pioneer story.

I started writing what I remembered, but realized I needed way more detail, the facts had become a little fuzzy since I’d heard it from her mouth 17 years ago. So I shot her a quick email, asked if we could talk on the phone sometime. She texted me back a day or two later and said she was in town that week. Miracle! I had no idea.

We enjoyed a wonderful 3 1/2-hour lunch at La Jolla Groves where I took copious notes, recorded our conversation, and was blown away yet again by the enormity of her journey, her suffering, and her ability to rise above it all. I was also stunned by the miracles...the way the hand of God had put the right people in place at all the right times so Phi-Phi could be who and where she is today.

I initially thought maybe I should post the story for Pioneer Day, but the scope was too great, I couldn’t finish it in time. So I’ve been sort of sitting on it…until September 3, when that sweet little Syrian refugee was washed ashore in Turkey. Suddenly REFUGEES rose to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and the Lord said NOW. I wanted to do something, anything, to help, and I felt prompted to share her story, along with some links where people could donate to alleviate the current refugee crisis.

Photos covering Phi-Phi's living room on September 5, 2015
Fortunately, I had the first several episodes already written and ready to post. I texted Phi-Phi and told her what I was planning to do, and she was very much on board. She spent several nights and an entire weekend rummaging through boxes of old photographs looking for just the right pictures to accompany each episode of the story. We texted, emailed and/or spoke on the phone daily, often many times a day, fine-tuning the details of each segment of the story. It has been a true collaboration.

I'm so humbled to have been permitted to share her amazing story, and hopefully to have been a small vehicle for outreach during a global crisis. I've been so moved by the outpouring of love and compassion from so many readers. The response has been staggering. Thank you, each of you, for reading, for loving, for caring, and for embracing a portion of humanity by investing in this story and caring for those in similar straits.

I thought it was fascinating and significant that the same week I started posting this story,  modern-day apostle Jeffrey R Holland visited Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the same three countries where Phi-Phi's harrowing journey begins—to deliver a message of healing and hope.

In a previous visit to Asia, Elder Holland said that members there are spiritual pioneers, and commended them for their strong character, saying they work daily “to take a stand, to be loyal devoted Latter-day Saints. They are courageous; they live the gospel and square their shoulders to be what they ought to be.”  Phi-Phi embodies every quality he ascribes to these modern-day pioneers. My friend the refugee truly is a Pioneer Girl.


Luisa Perkins said...

What a blessing this collaboration has been! I've referred many people here to read this amazing, uplifting story. You both are heroes of mine.

Sheryl Gallo said...

I am a friend of Phi Phi's and have been for almost 4 years now. In a nutshell, we were meant to meet, as the story to how we met is simply pure fate. I love this woman and she is dear to my heart. We have grown together over the years closer and closer, sharing more and more. The day she told me about her story years ago, lives in the forefront of my heart. I was simply mesmerized by her strength and will during that time, and continue to look up to her and honor her. She is truly a gem. I am inspired by your writing and the way you eloquently engage the reader in Phi Phi's journey. A masterpiece. Her journey from childhood to the person she is today is incredible in its struggles, but has given Phi Phi the pure heart that exists within her today. She is a blessing to many, especially to me. Thank you for writing this incredible story. Standing ovation.

charrette said...

Luisa, thank you for recognizing the blessings, and for continuing to refer others to this powerful story. You continue to inspire me on a daily basis.

Sheryl, I am so honored by the kindness of your words. I am so glad that you found Phi-Phi and value her friendship as I do. I give you a deep, heartfelt, humble bow to acknowledge your magnanimous standing ovation. :)