Former Refugee Shares her Story of Separation and Red Cross Reconnection

Thu-Thuy Truong with her brother, Sy, her sister, Tiffany, and a friend at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Thu-Thuy Truong with her brother, Sy, her sister, Tiffany, and a friend at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Speech given by Thu-Thuy Truong on April 30, 2014 at Vietnamese American Roundtable's 39th Commemoration of Black April.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank the Vietnamese American Roundtable for inviting me here tonight. It is my honor to speak to you on behalf of my family and the American Red Cross. I would like to share with you my family’s journey to America, the Red Cross, and the lessons learned from that fateful day, Black April.

It was 39 years ago today, April 30, 1975 that my mom and her five children, including myself, became some of the first Vietnamese boat people fleeing from an island south of Vietnam named Phu Quoc. On that same day, in the capital city of Saigon, my father was standing outside the US Embassy amongst thousands of people. He was unable to get in, watching the last of the US helicopters depart from the roof.

Around noon, while General Duong Van Minh was on the radio announcing his surrender, my mother was negotiating with the local fisherman to take all six of us out to open sea. We soon came upon an American cargo ship named Challenger. The Challenger was huge, like the ship in the movie Captain Phillips, with hundreds of boats of all sizes surrounding it.

Although there was no gun fire, it was chaotic with everyone scrambling, jumping from the outside boats towards the ship. I was thirteen years old, carrying piggyback my eight year old brother, Sy. At one point, I jumped onto the side wall of a boat landing on a thin ledge with just enough space for my feet to stand. My arms reached out wide, grasping the wall like Spiderman. A bang rang in my ears as my head slammed on the boat’s wall, then a second bang as Sy’s head also hit the wall above me. Although I could not breathe due to my little brother’s frightful clutch upon my neck, I was relieved to realize that we did not fall backwards into the undulating waters, avoiding being crushed between boats.

Initially, the only way to board the ship was a single rope ladder. The crew quickly retracted the ladder seeing that mobs of people were swarming the ship and falling into the ocean. Finally the ship’s crew lowered a makeshift wooden rig down to the water’s surface, which allowed small groups to climb onboard at a time. Someone with a bullhorn barked out warnings to everyone to stay calm and instructed women and children to get on first.

At dusk, soon after we got on, the rig was abruptly pulled up. I can never forget that loud roar from the crowd echoing the heart wrenching cries from what seemed like a thousand people below. I peered over to see terrified looks of separated family members. We were relieved that our family was intact, yet full of apprehension about my father back in Saigon. Eventually, the ship took us to Guam, and we were subsequently transported to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, where my mom registered with the Red Cross in search of my father.

My father miraculously escaped that day. He went to the Saigon River filled with loss and desperation, he climbed onto a boat and then another small cargo boat, eventually making his way to Wake Island, where he also registered with the Red Cross. Even in an era before cell phones and the internet, the Red Cross was able to reunite our family in Fort Chaffee three months later.

My extended family was not as fortunate. In 1979, my aunt Vi, her husband Huan, their son, and uncle, left by boat and were never found, presumed lost at sea. On a separate escape route, my aunt Thanh, husband Hung, and their three children experienced multiple harrowing pirate attacks, extreme hunger, heat exposure at open sea and on remote islands, until they arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand.

Although our own Black April journey was a breeze in comparison, it was a pivotal journey which changed all of us in significant ways. The experience prepared my family to cope with challenges after leaving Fort Chaffee, living in a poor and rough neighborhood. Whenever problems arose, such as getting punched by mean kids for no reasons, receiving eviction notices, being robbed, etc… my mom would say: "We lost everything on April 30 and survived until now, we can overcome this."

As a daughter, I would like to say to my parents and the elders: Thank you for risking everything, leaving your home, family, country, to give me a better future. I feel your pain and suffering, but hope that you will also see the “sweet” part of this bittersweet day. We have been given a new life with the generous support of this great nation. We have overcame many obstacles and challenges. Let’s use this experience to find common ground, to unite us as Vietnamese-Americans, and to work together for a better community.

As a mother, I would like to say to my children and the younger generation: Thank you for being here to learn more about your heritage. Understand our humble refugee beginnings, and do not take your comfortable life for granted. Cherish all the opportunities that you’re given, to study hard and pursue your dreams. Strive to achieve not just material wealth, but wealth in culture, in knowledge, and especially in compassion.

As an individual, Black April taught me a lesson in humility. I am so blessed that my entire family was saved by the ship that day. Double blessed that my father was saved. I have the honor now to volunteer with the American Red Cross, working on the very same program that united my family. The Restoring Family Links program helps find family members separated by disaster, conflict, migration, or other humanitarian emergency. It doesn’t take much time or money, but it is priceless to those who are still looking for their loved ones. By informing others about this program, we are forming a valuable chain of information, a chain of hope, and best of all, a chain of humanity.

I sincerely thank you for this opportunity tonight.