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|
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.