A small girl, perhaps just glancing the top of four feet, buries her head into her chest and squeezes her knees to her chin as panic erupts all around her. The girl’s sister is pressed next to her, curled on the floor of the boat, wrapping her body around the baby. The safe waters are less than five hundred feet away. Bullets are whizzing through the air and men are screaming through speakers. There would be no escape to freedom today for Lanh and her family. It would be to the prisons for all of them. Again.
In 1979, Vietnam was at war with the People’s Republic of China. This factor in conjunction with the total destruction of the country during the Vietnam War, alienation from the outside world and increasing poverty caused hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country.
Lanh’s family was among those thousands that risked their lives for the dream of a better life in Canada. “When we leave we can’t take anything or it looks like we are trying to escape. We had one little bag between the four of us. We wore layers of clothes and hid money all over our bodies. We set off all together but split in separate directions. If one gets caught you at least have hope for the other one to escape.”
In 1977, Lanh was 9 years old and already putting in a full day that would exhaust grown men. “I would go to school from 7 a.m. until noon. Then me and my sisters would walk to the sewing factory and we would work from 1 p.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. Then we would walk home and go to bed. The next morning you start all over again. Sometimes it is good because there’s no time to worry about your future. You just know that right now you have food and a roof. A lot of people didn’t even have a job- we were lucky. You can always find happiness. It depends the way you look at it.”
Between 1980 and 1985, Lanh and her family made countless attempts to escape. After each failed effort to flee the country she was captured and locked up in various prisons for varying stretches of time. It became such a natural part of her life that she has since lost track of how many times she was sent to prison after captures. She doesn’t remember if that number exceeds 100.
“One time we were so close to escaping. We were on the boat and we got caught. They started shooting at us and we had to stop. I was scared. The gunfire scared me and so did the men yelling on the speaker. We were so close to the Vietnam border line in the sea. We had to just sit there and wait for the soldiers to drag us back to shore. I was 12 yrs. old. That’s the first time I go to prison. It’s not a nice place. They strip you down- a lady does it. There they have the power to do whatever they want to you.”
Lanh’s first lock up in prison lasted one month. She was there with her sister, brother-in-law and 18 month old nephew. “The prison was maybe almost 5 feet wide and I’m not sure how long it was but about 20 of us were packed in there like sardines. At night when you are allowed to lay down you have to put your feet up on the wall- that’s how narrow it was.”
Lanh’s grandmother sent money to the prison to secure her release. In the middle of the night, guards secretly discharged Lanh with her young nephew. They were 150 kilometers from home. Lanh, weak from mal-nourishment, spent the next 24 hours alternating between walking with her nephew on her back and riding buses back to her village. She arrived home at 5 a.m the next day and began planning the next escape.
In 1979 Lanh’s uncle, who was already living in Canada, filed papers with the Vietnam government to secure the release of his family. “Nobody would release us,” said Lanh. “The process takes years and you have to pay and pay. You pay everybody you talk to about it. The papers just sit there. Finally in 1985 our sponsorship papers came through.” Almost six years later and dozens upon dozens of attempts to escape and as many confinements in prison, Lanh, now 17 yrs. old, and her family were allowed legal departure from Vietnam and legal entry into Canada.
In speaking about her adjustment to Canadian culture she says, “I understand it is a different life here. That’s what I wanted. But sometimes I have a hard time when I see food being wasted. There was a time (in Vietnam) for almost a month our only food was a tree in a yard. We ate the fruits off it and then when the fruit was gone we boiled the leaves for tea. And sometimes neighbours would share their suppers with us.”
When the world looks at Lanh they see a tiny Asian woman with beautiful delicate features framed by impossibly luxurious jet black hair falling to her waist. And unless the world stops to know her, what they won’t see is her courage and faith so enormous that it moves mountains. And hearts. Always humble, when Lanh looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see that either. “I’m not special. A lot of people did what I did and went through even more than I did. It was the way we were brought up.”
In reflecting upon her life Lanh is grateful. “I don’t look up. I look down. I see what I had compared to what I have now. God has given me so many blessings. There’s always someone beneath you that could use your help. I’m just happy for what I have and that I can help now.”
Lanh currently resides in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario with her husband and children. Lanh’s name has been changed to protect her family remaining in Vietnam.