Journey to Freedom

Thu Nguyễn, 70, immigrated from Vietnam


My grandma’s face pops up on my phone screen and I see her sit up a little straighter when she sees me. I assume she must have been scrolling on Facebook or watching Paris by Night, a Vietnamese musical variety show that she loves. She asks me how my day was and throughout our call I see her get up and walk around, cooking something in the kitchen. My mom lays next to me on my bed so she can translate any Vietnamese I don’t understand. When I tell my grandma that my piece has a chance to be put in the school newspaper, she looks more alert and says, “If only Ong Ngọai was here; he would definitely know how to make the story sound really exciting.” She pauses and laughs.

In the late 1970s, my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. The Vietnam War was fought between the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam who was allied with the US. Thu Nguyễn, who I call Bàbà, begins to tell her story. “In Vietnam, we did not have freedom. Communists took our freedom. We had to flee and come to America.” Because of the Vietnam War, people were trying to escape communism. In America today with COVID-19, crazy politics, and more, I often find myself wishing I lived somewhere else and this quote strikes me. It’s crazy to think about all the things people have done to come to this country. To leave Vietnam, most people escaped on a boat. Bàbà tells me about how she had to sneak out at night so she would not be caught trying to leave Vietnam. To stay under the radar, she would pretend to be out shopping late at night to not raise any suspicion. She got caught the first time trying to escape but was able to stay out of jail by exchanging money, and tried again a week later.

My grandpa, Ong Ngọai, Baba, and my aunt Coco who was only three at the time were able to catch a boat and leave using the money they had from selling their houses and anything else they weren’t bringing on the journey, to pay. At the time when they first left, my grandma was two months pregnant with my mom. Once on the small boat that was loaded with people although it was meant for only a few people or so, they were attacked by pirates at sea twice. They saw land after a couple of days but were kicked off the island by the people who lived there. It was a series of one hardship after the other.

Finally, they landed in Malaysia and stayed at a refugee camp called Cherating. “There seemed to be thousands and thousands of people,” Bàbà tells me. When you showered you were sprayed with around 40-50 people at the same time because there were so many people there. There was not even enough running water for restrooms and your bed was a tarp over a piece of a cardboard box.

…an experience like this, it’s something you’ll never forget.

— Thu Nguyễn

She gets up and checks on some food she has cooking in a pot in the kitchen. “We barely got any food at the camp,” she explains. Every week they only got about one chicken drumstick per person. If you wanted more food you had to use the little money you had brought to buy things like fish and rice. Because Bàbà was pregnant, some of the people who were in her group would share the little food they had with her to keep her in a safe condition.

The whole time you are at a refugee camp, you are waiting until you can be sponsored to come to America. People or communities such as a church or a relative already in America can help sponsor you to come. This means once you get to the US, they help you with things like getting a job or finding a house. A few months in, my grandpa was chosen to come to America but was told that only he could come, not his kid or Bàbà. He decided to turn down the offer, and finally, after almost a year of staying at the camp, the whole family was sponsored. Because my grandma was pregnant and due at any time, she was told she could not leave until she gave birth. She had my mom at the camp and a month later the whole family got to leave. It was my grandparents’ first time ever going on a plane!

I remember at my grandpa’s funeral last year and all the people from the Cherating refugee camp, whom he had befriended that came for him. “When you go through an experience like this, it’s something you’ll never forget,” my mom tells me.