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Once I Was Loved … A Vietnamese Priest Writes of the Sufferings of Immigration and 2005-2006

by Fr. Dat Hoang, Parochial Vicar, St. Mary Magdalene Church, Humble, Texas

Have you ever been rejected before? Do you remember how it felt? I’ll never forget the first time I experienced rejection. It happened in late 1988 when I was only twelve years old. My dad had been working in the Republic Government of South Vietnam before the Communists took over; and the only way for me to live my dream, to become a priest, was to escape Vietnam. Consequently, my parents decided to save every penny they had so that I could leave the country. That last night together with my family was difficult. I remember wiping away my tears as my younger brother and I said goodbye to my beloved parents, my brothers and sisters and my friends.

We left in a small boat. The forty of us were tightly packed together like sardines in the can. After many days in the ocean, we were stopped by pirates, who robbed us of all of our money and eventually let us go. When we finally arrived at an island in Thailand, we found a small abandoned wooden house with only a roof on it. We decided to lodge there. The very next day, my younger brother and I went down to the village to beg for food. To our surprise, the people screamed at us from their houses and ran us out of their yards. An elderly couple, who felt bad for us, quietly took us into their house and gave us some food. Very soon, we found out that there had been a movement to stop the waves of refugees and immigrants, and that the Thai authority had made it a felony to assist us. We lived on the island for two months without any official or legal humanitarian assistance.

One morning, I got up and noticed that the people in my group were crowded around in a circle. Out of curiosity, I sneaked into the circle and only then did I noticed the cold, pale, tired body of the middle-aged woman in our group lying there. She had passed away leaving behind her two-year old son. I’ll never forget that moment. My heart ached as I looked at the little boy. I wanted to run over and simply hold him. Standing there, I thought to myself, “Why? Why did she have to die this way, when all she wanted was to be reunited with her husband who had left Vietnam before her?”

Shortly after the woman’s death, some people arrived to take her little baby to his father, who having arrived before the closing date, was living in the official refugee camp on the mainland. The rest of us refugees were then taken to a “temporary” camp in the frontier between Thailand and Cam-bodia, where we waited for the authority to decide what they were going to do with us. They provided us with knives and tools to clear the wood and to build bamboo houses. Though we were not allowed to write letters to the outside world nor to our families, people from various agencies came in to bring us food and medical care.

One night as we were sleeping, a loud explosion shook everyone in the camp from their sleep. I remember looking out the window across the field and noticing fires breaking out in several areas. The horrific blasts and sounds of guns terrified us. The next day we learned that around our area, the Khmer Rouge Insurgents at the border were still fighting against the Cambodian Government. Out of fear, everyone began to dig bomb and bullet shelters in their houses. Every time a fire broke out, the camp was much like a ghost town the next day. Nobody would dare come into our camp. Sometimes I wondered, “Does anybody know we’re still alive?”

In the midst of the horrifying fear of rejection and abandonment, there was, however, a spark of hope, Fr. Pierre. He was a missionary from France, very skinny and tall. They said he was about 73 years old, and I vividly remember his beautiful and gracious smile. On those dreaded days when nobody dared to enter the “ghost town,” I would see him driving his old, beaten up car slowly down the dirt road toward the bamboo chapel we had built. He would walk around the camp and visit with us, deepening the sweet consolation I felt in my heart, knowing that I was loved and accepted by at least one person.

As soon as Fr. Pierre found out that we could not contact our families and that they had no idea whether we were still alive, he told us to write letters using his own address. Thanks to Fr. Pierre, my poor mother could finally sleep well knowing that her two small children were still alive.

One day as Fr. Pierre was leaving the camp, the Thai guards stopped him at the gate. They checked his car and discovered the letters under his seat. In front of all the people, they made this elderly and fragile priest crawl several times around his car on the dirt ground. To this day, I don’t understand why I did not do something. Why didn’t I at least run over and crawl with Fr. Pierre on the ground? Maybe it was because I was too young and had become too frightened and terrified the previous months? For whatever the reason, I will never forget that incident. As Fr. Pierre got down on his knees, my entire being became frozen. A series of questions ran through my mind. Why did Fr. Pierre become a criminal for helping us in the most compassionate way? Why did the lady on the island die so helplessly when all she wanted was to be reunited with her husband? Why was I rejected and abandoned when all I wanted was to have a better education and become a priest?

That nightmare that I lived through many years ago came back to haunt me when I learned of the Bill H.R. 4437 passed by the United States House of Representatives last December. I now find myself asking why this great country of ours wants to make criminals overnight of millions of illegal immigrants whose only desires are to be reunited with their families, to search for a better education for their children and to help their loved ones. Worse still, why does it want to make it a felony for someone to offer these people humanitarian help? I feel as though we are making Fr. Pierre get down on his knees and crawl on the ground again. Are we so unjustly equating these good people with terrorists and drug dealers?

Without question our immigration laws are broken and in great need of reform. We are trying to “control” our borders while numerous people continue to die in the most inhumane way, risking their lives in search for a better future and longing to be reunited with their loved ones. Human exploitation and stories of deaths from human trafficking continue to break our hearts. Yet our borders remain in disrepair. It is time for our nation to re-enact an immigra-tion law that is comprehensive. Justice demands that separated families be allowed the oppor-tunity to be reunited legally with their families, who out of hopelessness may be willing to put their lives in danger and risk being treated inhumanly just to do so. Our mighty Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, that for years has welcomed waves of immigrants in the history of our land, must continue to speak in the spirit of our nation. Let us continue to welcome the exiled by providing them with the opportunity of temporary visas so that they can help their already suffering and destitute families. We give billions of dollars away each year to help countries abroad. Why must we withhold our noble spirit of charity from people who are in our own homeland? How can we, as a nation that is so blessed with prosperity, turn people away in their time of need who are now with us in our own land? Worse yet, how can we “throw cold water in their faces” by making them criminals instead of allowing them the right to have a face, a voice and an opportunity to contribute to this society?

Today as I reflect on the hero that changed my life, sweet Fr. Pierre, I have to wonder where he might be now. I suspect that he has probably already passed away. If that is the case, I can’t help but think of the blessed day when, having come before the Lord he was welcomed with those words of eternal reward, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father….For I was hungry and you gave me food….a stranger and you welcomed me…. [For] whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mat 25:34—40).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, July-August 2006.