A difficult, dangerous trip from Vietnam to Malaysia
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Julie Dinh’s father was a South Vietnamese soldier who fought alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War. When the war ended he was imprisoned and abused by the Viet Cong for five years. Here Julie describes what happened when her father was released from prison.
Dinh: My father was very stressed and depressed from the war and prison. They beat him severely in prison, and when he got out he was still considered the enemy. No one would hire him, and he was in constant danger. My mom was the one that supported the whole family. He and my mom realized that he had to leave the country. During that time, there were a lot of people fleeing Vietnam to get to freedom. My dad had no idea where he was going, he just knew that he needed to leave before he was killed.
My mom told my dad to take the older sons and daughters so they could help him in another country. But my brothers and sisters were old enough to know the danger. They didn’t want to go. Two months before my aunt and uncle and my cousins had all died in the ocean when their boat sank while they were trying to escape.
One of my older sisters wanted to go but my father was afraid she might be raped if the refugee boat was stopped by pirates. “They would have to kill me, because I wouldn’t let anything happen to you,” he told my sister.
My dad didn’t tell me that he and my mom had decided that my little brother and I should go with him. They figured that the pirates wouldn’t bother little kids. So one day he told us that we were going with him to visit my aunt. I started to realize that something was wrong when I saw the ocean. “Daddy, daddy I want to go home. I want to see Mom,” I said. My dad said, “I don’t think you are going to see your mom for some time. We are going away. We’re leaving Vietnam.” I was terrified.
It was nighttime when dad took us on a small canoe out to the bigger boat that was waiting. Somehow the communists discovered we were trying to escape, and they started shooting at the boat as we pulled away. I was lying down next to a woman when one of the bullets came through the boat and hit her in the arm. Her blood was splattered all over my face. That bullet had to stay in her arm for the two weeks we were on the ocean. She nearly lost her arm because of the infection.
They finally stopped chasing us because they were in a small boat and the waves were too much for them. I think they thought that our boat would eventually sink from all of the bullet holes. As we got out into the ocean, water started coming in through those holes. My dad and all of the other men took turns dumping the water out.
My dad ripped one of his shirts and made bags that he filled with rice. Then he stuffed the rice bags into the holes. When the rice got wet it swelled up and helped slow the leaks down.
It was a rough journey. We almost died. It took us two weeks to get to Malaysia and we encountered pirates three times. The first two times, we were stopped by bad people. They took all of our money and they took the single women to their boat. They didn’t bother the women with children or the little kids like me. My dad thought there might be pirates so he had already cut my hair and dressed me like a boy.
We stayed back one night and waited for them to return the women. We were not going to leave the women behind. My dad and uncle knew there was a good chance that the pirates would bring them back. And then we went on for a couple of days and the same thing happened with a different group of pirates. The third time was different. They were pirates but they were good people. They gave us a little food and water and they didn’t do anything to the women.
Gallacher: How did those women recover from that experience?
Dinh: They were very depressed but they were glad to be alive.
Gallacher: And you witnessed all of this?
Dinh: Yes, it was very scary. We nearly died. I think if we had been on the ocean one more day we would have died. By then our boat’s engine had quit. Finally, my dad saw land and he was so happy that he wasn’t paying attention and a huge wave knocked him off of the boat. I thought my dad was dead. The waves were so big no one could see him for about 10 minutes. My uncle was able to turn the boat around and go back and we finally found him.
Just after we got my dad back in the boat another big wave knocked out our rudder. We were drifting. Lucky for us, people along the shore of Malaysia saw us and sent a boat out to pull us in. My dad spent a month in the hospital in the refugee camp because he swallowed so much salt water.
Gallacher: How have you recovered from that experience?
Dinh: Well, I feel like I am a survivor, and surviving all of that has made me stronger. But sometimes when I see the ocean I have a flashback. But I am convinced that if I can survive that, I can survive anything. Luckily nothing happened to me. And I think even those women who were abused by the pirates can appreciate life in America and the freedom that they have here.
Next week: Julie talks about living in a refugee camp and adjusting to her new life in the United States.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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