Thursday, September 3, 2015

Refugees are Pioneers

In the aftermath of the tragic discovery of a 3 year-old Syrian refugee washed ashore in Turkey yesterday, I reached out to my friend Phi-Phi, who was a child refugee herself nearly 40 years ago. She responded, "That is immensely heartbreaking. But it seems that all stories related to refugees, wherever we are, have one level of heartbreak or another." 

would like to offer you Phi-Phi's own story, of escaping Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. What I love most about this story (besides her personal resilience) are the many miracles, and the overarching message of hope. We need this story today. I am so grateful our nation and others around the globe opened their doors and their hearts, offering assistance to these refugees, so my friend is alive to tell her story today. 

Should you feel moved to lend a hand toward rescuing other refugees, there are links at the bottom of the post. Refugees are pioneers. I hope you'll join me in their rescue.

Phi-Phi Chang Anderton, circa 1976

Pioneer Girl in a Fishing Boat 

One of my favorite pioneers was born not in the 1800’s, but in 1971. Her name is Phi-Phi Chang Anderton, and she was born in Saigon. Her father was raised in a family that was quite well off—he was educated in Europe, spoke seven languages, owned several homes...and had a big Chevy Impala that was the talk of the town. 

When the Fall of Saigon took place on April 30, 1975, Phi-Phi was just four years old.  Although communist North Vietnam had succeeded in unifying the north and south under a single government, the regime was unsuccessful in rebuilding the nation and the economy after the war. 

In 1976 they established the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Their leader, Lê Duẩn, retailiated against the South for their resistance and sought to purge those who had fought against the North. He imprisoned over a million, instigating a mass exodus and humanitarian disaster. A 1983 human rights survey called Vietnam under Lê Duẩn “the single most repressive government in the world.”

In 1977, when Phi-Phi was six years old, she and her parents and grandmother, stifled and endangered under this socialist regime, packed themselves like sardines into a small fishing boat, among hundreds of other escapees, in an effort to flee. These lovely, educated people had become “boat people.”

It was the middle of the night. The sky was the color of ink, with thick vapors of fog rising off the water. The overcrowded boat slipped down the narrow waterway, tall ferns and skinny trees lining the shores on either side, the distant mountains not even visible.Suddenly, less than an hour after leaving shore, the boat was accosted by communist soldiers, who stood over the escapees, shouting and pointing machine guns at them. They were captured. 

Everyone on the boat was hauled off to a government facility, where the men were separated from the women and children—the men were sent to prison, and the women and children were held in a room the size of a small gymnasium—given military calorie bars instead of food, and buckets in the corners for bathrooms. They lived there under those pitiable conditions for a week, then were released.

Her father didn’t fare as well. He was kept in prison for six months, when finally some money changed hands to expedite his release. During those months when her father was incarcerated, Phi-Phi’s maternal grandmother had passed away, experiencing freedom only in the next life. It took the family another year to gather resources and put the plans in place for a second escape. This time they would not travel by boat. Enter Plan B.

This is part one in a series. Read what happened to Phi-Phi and her family next here.

If any readers would like to join me in donating to the urgent cause of aiding today’s refugees, here are a few links to sponsoring sites with A- to A+ ratings by Charity Watch:

American Refugee Committee
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Service
Doctors Without Borders USA
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Lutheran World Relief
Mennonite Central Committee
Mercy Corps
Save the Children
United States Fund for UNICEF
World Vision

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