The Journey To Freedom

Foreword - By James Phu

The best bloggers and writers pull you into a story, typically their own story.  

What is my story?  What do I want my audience to know about me? 

I don’t have a tragic story that will draw readers in.  I haven’t suffered any major tragedies in life. I don’t have a story where I was a hero or even one where I accomplished anything grand in life. 

No, I don’t have any of that.  

My childhood was fairly normal, heck it was probably better than normal.

I grew up an amazingly loving environment.  I was constantly reminded that family always came first.  The house I grew up in was filled with love, gratitude, and hope.   It didn’t matter that we were dirt poor. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak a word of English. It didn’t matter that we relied on the help of loving and caring Canadian families in order to feed ourselves.  None of that mattered.

You see I am a first generation born Canadian. That meant I was handed an opportunity of a lifetime.  An opportunity that no other family member in my entire family tree has ever had before. 

My story begins long before I was born…  My story is intertwined with my family’s story of hardship, triumph, hate, love, agony, success, heartache, happiness, fear, hope….

To understand who I have become in life one needs to understand where my family comes from and the values they instilled in me when I was young…

To this day, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles speak very little about their past.  In fact, it’s a subject that is commonly avoided.  But such a story shouldn’t be hidden in shame.  It’s a story that must be told so that my children and their children and their children’s children will one day understand the sacrifices that their grandparents and great grandparents made in the past just so we could have the opportunity to live a wonderful life.

The article below (The Journey To Freedom) was written by my Uncle Tom back in 1991. Thank you Tom for writing this wonderful article and giving me permission to post it on my blog.  Without this story a piece of me would have been lost forever.

Without further ado, I present to you, “The Journey To Freedom” by Tom Phu. 


The Journey To Freedom - By Tom Phu

Published on December 1991


The article that I am about to share with you is very personal; it is the story of my "first life", before I came to Canada.  In this article I have outlined in detail of how the war in Southeast Asia affected my family's life.  The experience I had growing up in the war zones in my early childhood and the different stages of maturity during my journey to freedom.  This story was very sad and difficult for me to write, especially, it brought back so much pain and memories.  It also made me appreciate life here in Canada even much more regardless of what I have. It’s a reminder of where I came from and how the journey brought me here.

It was late 1972 in the city of Campot in Southern Cambodia where I encountered my first experience with the war. I was just a little boy (about six years old) living in a country that was once a very peaceful and beautiful place. 

The war began deep in the mountains far away from the city where we lived.  We could hear the sound of the bombs exploding just about every night from far distance.

During the days business was as usual in the city.  My father worked in his shop as a goldsmith and my mother owned a small fruit stand in the market.  At that time we stayed home from school because of the instability of the country. 

My parents were very cautious, especially my father.  He taught us what to do in emergency situations.  At night our family slept very close together in the living room so if anything did happen we would get the instructions of what to do from my parents very quickly.

My father built a bullet-proof room in our house near the kitchen.  The room was surrounded by many sandbags and we had plenty of food stored there.

We didn't have to sleep in that room for a long time after he built it.  Until one night the bombing and gun firing sounded closer and louder to the city.  My father alerted us and took us to safety in the protected room.  From then on my family spent just about every night sleeping in that room.

The war began to break out stronger day by day.  You could tell by the movement of the armoured cars, American tanks, big artillery, and the army in the city.  My father told us not to leave the house unless escorted by an adult. So most of the time we would play card games in the house.

At this time the war was getting very close to the city. The Cambodian army were losing in the battle every hour.  My parents knew that it was just a matter of time before the Khmer Rouge would overtake the city.

We decided to move to my aunt's house in another part of the country where the fighting had not reached there yet.  I can't remember the name of the city but it was bigger than the one we came from.

At the time transportation out of the city was very expensive and hard to come by because of the danger.  My brother and four sisters (six of us) lived at my aunt's house while my parents went back to Campot to bring out my dad's jewellery equipment.  We were so scared and worried that my parents would not be able to get out, I cried all the time. They finally managed to get out after many attempts.  When my parents got to my aunt's house they rested for a couple of days and then we were on the move again.  My parents knew that we would not be safe here because the war would eventually move toward this city and it would be hard to move our family out again.

We moved to my uncle's house on the coast far from the mainland.  It was much safer here because we had our own transportation.  My uncle was a fisherman and so were the majority of people that lived there.  He had two big fishing boats that were ready and available for us to move out in an emergency situation.  We lived there for a while and just before the fighting reached the village we decided to move on. At this time the Khmer Rouge were just about in control of the whole country.

My uncle's family and some of his friends went to Thailand in their boats.  My parents didn't want to go with them to Thailand because it was to far from home.  Instead they wanted to move to Vietnam where we had some relatives and friends that lived there.  So again off we went to Vietnam, to a small village called Hatien on the border of Cambodia. (My uncle and his family moved to Thailand and shortly after moved to Paris, France where they have made their home now for the past 18 years).

All the time we were on the run my brother, my sisters, and I never got to go to school.  My family lost everything we had in Cambodia.  All we had left was a small bag of clothing and some gold that we used to trade for food when we first arrived in our neighboring country Vietnam.

We started our life all over again in Vietnam.  My parents worked very hard just to keep our family going.  All of us had to learn the new language and the Vietnamese culture.  The countryside was quite similar to that of Cambodia and the people were very friendly.

It was late 1974 about six months after we moved to Vietnam when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and the process of the killing field began.  Thousands of men, women, and young children were killed by the Khmer Rouge for no reason.  The brutal killings by the Khmer Rouge shocked the whole world.  Our family lost so many loved ones in such a short time period.  We lost my grandmothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins just to mention a few.  They were murdered in cold blood by the Khmer Rouge and some died from starvation.

Everyday for several months’ people tried to escape from Cambodia to the neighbouring countries: Thailand, Leos, and Vietnam.  For the fortunate few that made it across to Vietnam they told horrifying stories of the unfortunate ones that either got shot in the back or killed by stepping on bombs while trying to escape. 

Every morning we gathered at the city centre to identify relatives and friends and listen to the news from those that had just made it to Vietnam.  We would bring food and clothes to give to them and also moral support.  It was very sad to hear and to see the conditions they were in.  (Emotions were high).  It was one of the unfortunate ways to see how the war really brought the people together.  People were very supportive and caring during this time.  For our family we were so devastated to hear the news from our countrymen.  We heard that one of my uncles (my mom's brother-in-law) was separated from his family and later was shot and killed by the Khmer Rouge.  We woke up from nightmares night after night. All we could do was pray and hope that one day we would see some of our relatives again.

After many days of searching and waiting we finally had some good news.  One of my uncles (my dad's younger brother) had made it across to Vietnam.  That was the happiest moment for our family, we celebrated with tears.  We sat up all night and listened to his story.  He told us how he escaped.  He was separated from his family and knew he had very little time to live after his separation.  He planned out what to do and where to run during the day when he worked in the rice fields that were guarded heavily by the Khmer Rouge at gun point.  He was very skinny and weak because of the lack of food.  He thought his chance for escape was very slim; he had no choice but to give it a try.  He said that he would have preferred getting shot while trying to escape than to be tied down like a dog to a coconut tree and getting shot in the head by a ten year old Khmer Rouge.  His escape was best described by the movie “The Killing Fields" there was very little difference. My uncle is a very brave and a very optimistic man.  It was a miracle that he survived.  He lived with us in Vietnam for about two years.

In 1979 when we escaped from Vietnam my uncle refused to come with us he was hoping that one day he would be able to return to his home land to look for his family.  (We know that my uncle is currently living in Cambodia but we don't know if any of his family members are still alive.)  We've lost touch with my uncle for about thirteen years now and we don't believe he knows that we are living in Canada.  We hope that we will soon be able to get in touch with him again.

During the time the Khmer Rouge were busy slaughtering the innocent people in Cambodia, Vietnam was not that stable neither.  Apparently the civil war had begun years ago between the North Vietnamese (the communists) and the South Vietnamese (supported by the Americans).  The war in Vietnam did not involve the brutal killings of the civilian people like its neighbour, Cambodia.

In 1975 the Americans lost the war to the North Vietnamese and the country was liberated.  At the time we didn't really care who won the war all we wanted was for the war to end.  It did and it ended in a bizarre way.  I remember about one week before the liberation there were many South Vietnamese and American soldiers fighting against the North Vietnamese just outside of Saigon and other major cities. They were holding the North Vietnamese soldiers pretty good. They had an excellent army and a lot of American tanks and big artillery.  We thought for sure the fighting would last much longer.  Unpredictably a few days later the South Vietnamese declared surrender.  We were so happy that it was finally all over.  We celebrated on the streets with the soldiers. 

 The Communist Government promised us that life would be much better.  They would work for us, we were free from the American leadership and tomorrow our brothers and sisters would work together to build our country into a better place to live in.  At first the communist government were good to us they led us to believe in them but it didn't last for long. We soon discovered that we were being brain washed.  They were taking advantage of us and slowly started to punish us.  The economy was poor and the cost of living was high.  At one point each family was given a fixed quota to purchase red meat and rice from the government co-op market at an affordable price but there was never enough food.

Communication was a problem.  We were completely cut off from the rest of the world.  Any news we received was screened and manipulated by the government.  The government set up big speakers all over the country.  In the city about every 1 Km. or so there was a speaker mounted high on the trees or power posts.  That was their way to communicate to us.  The sad thing about this was we could only listen and couldn't voice our opinions.  At first it was very hard to get used to because it was loud and disturbing.  Their standard news hours were 6:00 am that was like a wake up call to try and encourage us to get out of the house and exercise.  The next news was at 12:00 pm to inform us of our lunch time and news at 5:00 pm for dinner time.  The whole idea behind this was to program our minds to control us and direct us on what to do.  That was the propaganda in Vietnam.  It reminds me of a book I once read "1984" written by George Orwell, how he described the "Big Brother" in his book.  In this case the communist government was the big brother when they talked on the speakerphones, we listened.  We were very frustrated by the speakerphones but slowly and eventually our brains were washed into it.  I remember several occasions when we forgot to eat lunch because the communication systems broke down and the news was late.  I guess what I want to say is at the end we were basically relying so much on them to tell us what to do. That's how easily we could be manipulated.  We were being brain washed. 

As the years went by things got harder.  They restricted the movements of people.  We couldn't travel from one city to another unless we were issued a proper pass.  They would search people's houses at night and if a visitor was caught without a pass he or she would be put in jail.  To make life harder the government changed their money twice in the five years that we were there.  We worked so hard to save up our money and the next thing we knew it was invalid.  They told us that we all should be equal and that is why they did this. Every family was issued $200.00 whether your family was big or small.  They did this to us twice.  Everytime they announced the change hundreds of people committed suicide.  Some people hung themselves, some food poisoned their family, and some drove the whole family off a cliff.  It was very sad and hard to understand.  For our family it was very hard because there were eight of us and $200.00 was very little.  Luckily my parents happened to be in the jewellery business and managed to buy some gold and carried very little money on hand.  Gold, diamonds, and American money were very expensive to buy.

During the five years that we lived in Vietnam we moved at least a half dozen times because of the war.  This time the war was between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese.  The Khmer Rouge tried to over take South Vietnam but they didn't prevail.  Again we lost everything.  Everytime we moved we could only take very little with us.  We started from a small city near the Cambodian border Hatien and moved slowly city by city outward as the war moved towards us.  We ended up at one of the bigger cities, Rach Yat.  Our backs were facing the big open ocean that lay ahead of us. Rach Yat was the last city we stayed in, in Vietnam.

In 1979 my mom took seven of us including my sister-in-law (just married to my brother) and fled Vietnam leaving my dad behind.  It was the hardest decision we ever made but that was the only choice we had.  We had two options to choose from on how to get out of the country.  Either way it was very expensive.  The first option was to arrange for a boat and escape but if we got caught they would put us in jail for a long time.  That option was very risky so we did not consider it.  The second option was to pay the Government so that we would be allowed to leave Vietnam legally and to pay the boat owner for the boarding fee.  If we chose to pay our way out the average cost for a person to leave the country was somewhere between eight to fifteen gold bars depending on the size and the condition of the boat and the experience of the crew members.  At the time, one bar of gold was equivalent to about $600 or $700 U.S. dollars.  With nine people in my family, it was impossible for us to pay for our way out with the little money that we had.  Fortunately, one of my dad's old friends owned two big boats and he let my family get on free of charge but my dad had to stay behind to help him co-ordinate the trip for the second boat which was planning to leave about one year after the first one. (Basically the guy was greedy.  He wanted to come out rich.  A year later the second boat that was supposed to leave Vietnam did not leave as planned because something went really wrong...  The man who owned the boat was arrested and put in jail.  My dad was okay but he got stuck in Vietnam.)

The boat we went on was originally a freight boat that was once used to haul goods between Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  It was converted to become a passenger boat.  The boat was about twenty-five meters long and three and a half meters wide, and had three levels.  The bottom two levels were about five feet in height in between each level and had very poor air circulation.  It carried a bit more than five hundred people.  The space was very limited.  We sat, ate, and slept in the same spot.  The Army/Police and the crew had to load us into the boat twice.  The first time the boat was full after about four hundred people were on board and the boat started to rock so hard from one side to the other as if it was about to capsize.  We could hear the people on board panicking, screaming, and crying.  At that time we weren't on board yet. We looked at the boat with fear and at the same time worried that we might not be able to get on board.  We had mixed feelings.  They unloaded the people and told us that they would fix up the boat and we would try again the next day.  In our minds we were questioning how they would go about to fix up the boat in one day and to fit the remainder of us (one hundred more people).  That night we slept at the dock waiting to go on board the next day.  The next afternoon the boat finally made its way to the dock.  It was the same boat except they tied two big bundles of bamboo trees (one to each side of the boat) to keep it stable while loading people.  Down we went into the boat; the bamboo trees did its job.  The only problem we had was the boat was too small; it couldn't fit everybody that had paid to go on.  The total number of people on board was a bit over five hundred and it couldn't fit any more people.  My family was very lucky.  We were the second to last family to go on board. Those people that didn't get on were given the option to go on the next boat or receive a partial refund.  Unfortunately, my sister-in-law's family was one of the families left behind.  I thank my dad for what he did for us, he deserves all the credit.  Without his courageousness and sacrifice, we wouldn't have been on that boat.  Therefore, I wouldn't be here today to tell you my story.

Saying goodbye to my dad was the hardest thing to do in my life.  I didn't know if I would ever see him again.  It was a very sad and difficult time for my family especially for my mom.  She knew that the journey out was a matter of life and death and she was responsible to take care of all seven of us.

As the boat pulled away, we didn't know where we were going.  All we knew was that we were leaving Vietnam and our destination was unknown.  The boat was barely afloat and could hardly move.  We were in the open ocean for three days and three nights.  Thanks to God for giving us the good weather. If it hadn't been for the perfectly calm sea, we all could have drowned.  Our boat was not in good condition to handle rough sea.  It was so heavy that it couldn't have been able to jump the waves.

On the second day at sea, we ran into the Thai pirates. They were the fishermen from Thailand. They knew many people fled from Vietnam using this route. It was much easier and faster for them to become rich by robbing us then by catching fish.  Their boats were very fast and heavily armed with machine guns.  From very far, we spotted them when we saw a tiny cloud of black smoke rise above the horizon.  Our navigator warned us of their presence.  He told us to prepare to give them anything they wanted (usually gold, diamonds, and American money) and hope that they would let us go in peace.  The Thai pirates were known to be very violent.  We were told that they had robbed, raped, and killed people in the past so we were very co-operative.  We tried to outrun them but we couldn't because their boat was too powerful in comparison to ours.  Our boat had three engines. One big engine and two small portable lawnmower engines for used as a backup.  During the chase we had all three engines going at their full speed.  It still wasn't fast enough, within thirty minutes or so the pirates caught up to us. With their guns and knives pointed at us, they demanded us to give them everything we had. After hours of searching and getting what they came for, they let us go. They wasted our water supply during their search.  They punctured and broke all the water containers to look for gold.

They did find a lot of gold hidden in the containers.  They threatened to kill our navigator while we were looking on. One of the pirates pointed his gun at the navigator's forehead and pulled the trigger.  Luckily there were no bullets in it. I don't think that I can ever forget that incident and forgive those pirates for what they did to us.  It was a game they played but it was our lives that they were playing with. They were so inhumane and had no mercy for anyone.  Later that same day we got robbed again by another Thai boat.  This time there was not much left for them to take but they still managed to come up with many handfuls.  These pirates were more sympathetic than the first group. They gave us some fish, ice and water.  We were grateful for that but still remained bitter for what they did. Later in that night, we witnessed two deaths on board. One elderly man and a young boy passed away.  They were sick and nobody could help them.  They were wrapped up in plastic bags and were left behind at sea.

The next morning we woke up with joy and celebration for the first time since we left Vietnam.  We saw a chain of mountains from a far distance ahead of us.  The navigator pointed to the mountains and shouted with a big smile.  "That's where we are going!"  About three hours later, we reached the Malaysia shore and realized that we weren't welcome.  The Malaysian police signalled us not to come in any closer.  They told us to go to Indonesia where there were several refugee camps.  We ignored their instructions.  Our boat started to move slowly forward towards the shore, that's when they started to fire a round of bullets into the sky.  We stopped the boat with mixed reaction.  We discussed what to do among ourselves and unanimously decided that we wanted to get ashore despite their objection.  We were a group of fearless, hungry, and desperate people.  All we ever wanted was to get off that boat.

Our navigator moved the boat forward in full speed and purposely ran into a bank.  The police opened fire into the water in front of the boat to try and discourage us from coming forward but we kept on going.  Once the boat ran the bank, we jumped off and swam towards the shore.  The police stopped the shooting and they retained us in one area.  They later gave us food and water.

We had no shelter so we slept under the open sky on the beach.  I remember there were a few nights when it rained.  My family had to sit up and huddle together under the nearby trees, wet and cold.  Fortunately the weather was very warm there.

We stayed on that beach for nearly a month before they decided to force us out of Malaysia.  The Malaysian government gave us fuel and had the Coast guard escort us part way to Indonesia.

That night we were caught in a heavy rainstorm and the ocean was very rough.  We were scared but with the Coast guard beside us we felt a little more secure.  The Coast guard decided to let all the children and the ladies aboard their ship because of the danger on our boat.  During the transferring of the ladies and children from our boat to the other ship the waves smashed our boat against the ship causing a major damage to the front end of our boat.  Our boat could barely move in the rough sea. The Coast guard decided to give us a hand by towing our boat with the men behind.  By the time we got to the Indonesian water, the storm was over.  All the ladies and children were transferred back to our boat and the Coast guard showed us where to go and they went back.  It was early in the morning but still very dark.

 We were very close to one of the smaller refugee camps then.  We kept on going for another few hours until we realized that there were so many rocks surrounding where we were going.  So we stopped the boat and dropped the anchor. We waited there for quite a while before we spotted a small Indonesian fishing boat that came to help us.  He didn't help us for nothing, we had to bargain and finally pay him two gold bars before he agreed to show us the safe way into the refugee camp.  Our boat took us to the refugee camp safely and the next morning it sank by the dock.

The day we arrived at the camp, the first thing we did was to register ourselves for food and a place to stay.  The camp was isolated from the rest of the Indonesians; we were basically on our own.  Everyday more refugees arrived at the camp.  As the days went by, life in the refugee camp got crowded and harder.  The population grew so fast that it was out of control.  Food did not arrive quick enough to provide for everyone.  Everyday people died from some kind of disease, especially the children.  There was no hope to leave that camp because no immigration workers would go there.  We stayed there for six months before we got transferred to the main camp, Galang.   

In Galang the housing and food distribution were more organized and sufficient.  When we arrived there we were put into a barrack (co-op housing) that contained up to one hundred people.  We were given one bunk bed, each bed for four people. Some families that had less than four people had to share their bed with the others.  Again the living space was very limited.  For eight of us we received about 100 square feet. The barrack was very crowded.  No matter if it was in the day or the night it was always so noisy.  Given the conditions we had there, we still liked it better than our first camp because we were more exposed and had a real opportunity to immigrate to other countries.

In the camp the most popular and well known countries were: United States, Australia, Sweden, West Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand, and the list went on. Canada was one of the unknown countries, at least to my family and to a lot of people that we knew.  We originally applied to go to the United States or Australia.

We got interviewed by the Australians but failed to qualify.  They told us that we didn't meet the educational requirements and we didn't have special skills/occupations. We were pretty depressed when we came out of the interview.

The Americans rejected our application because we didn't have any relatives there.  They wanted a lot of young single men because they could support themselves shortly after they got to the United States.

 Those were the two countries that we heard so much of. At this time we had already been in Galang for two months and most of the people we knew had either been accepted by their chosen country or have already been informed of the date of departure.  We were in the state of panic.  We wanted to get out of the camp so bad.  Everyday we saw people leave the camp and the new comers arrive to fill in the space.  It was a constant rotation and yet our status was just like the new comers.

My family had a long discussion among ourselves as to where to apply next.  We thought about going to Israel but very quickly changed our minds.  By this time we heard a little bit about Canada.  We were told by many people that it was very cold there.

One former refugee lady came from Canada to visit the camp and told us that the weather in Canada is very very cold with a lot of snow.  It is so cold that in a year we only work six months and the other six months we would stay home.  After we heard that brief information about Canada we were so discouraged and confused.  Nevertheless we saw people that were rejected by the other countries like we were, so they applied to go to Canada and all of them were accepted by the Canadian Immigration.  We didn't want to be left out so we decided to apply to Canada.  We got accepted right away with few questions asked in comparison to the interview done by the Australians.  We were very happy and excited that we were going to Canada but on the other hand were scared because we didn't know where in Canada.

I remember looking at some Canadian magazines and they freaked me out.  All I ever saw were snow and mountains everywhere with no houses, some pictures of Eskimos walking on the snow, and one taxi was made from a tank.  I couldn't help it, everytime we mentioned Canada I thought of the pictures I saw.  I wasn't too sure if my family had made the right decision.  My mom kept on encouraging us by saying if people can live there so can we.

One month after we got accepted by Canada we were given a full medical examination.  Everyone in my family was healthy and two months later we were notified to leave the camp for Canada.  We were so happy to hear the news.  We celebrated and said goodbye to all our friends.

We were transferred by a boat from Indonesia to Singapore where we stayed for one night.  We flew from Singapore to Edmonton on April 12, 1980, I was thirteen years old.  When the plane landed in Edmonton it was a sunny beautiful day.  We said to ourselves who said this country is cold?  It looks pretty hot out there.  (Where we came from when you see a clear sky, sunny day, you automatically think 30 degrees Celsius). 

We rushed out of the plane to the nearby bus, that's when we realized it was very cold.  I was frozen. We were given blankets to wrap around us.  We stayed at one of the army bases in Edmonton for two days where we were given clothes. From there they would transfer us to our designated city.  On April 14, 1980 my family and two other families were sent to Kelowna. 

When we arrived at the Kelowna airport there were hundreds of Christ Lutheran Church congregation members there to welcome us.  We were overwhelmed by the reception.  We couldn't say a word because my family couldn't speak a word of English, not even to say "Hello"; all we did was smile.

There were four families from that church that volunteered to help my family.  They were a group of wonderful people.  They helped my family in every aspect; they simply took care of us when we first got here.  When they introduced themselves they gave us hugs and kisses.  They were so happy we could see tears in their eyes.  I will always treasure that moment with me.  Since then, we have become very close friends.

We stayed in a motel for three months before moving to a house.  The first week in Kelowna we had so many people come to visit us we couldn't tell who they were.  We said to ourselves why does this family keep on coming to see us but we were wrong, they were a different family everytime.  We couldn't recognize them because all "white people" looked the same to us when we first came to Canada. 

We tried to sponsor my dad from Vietnam shortly after we came here but was unsuccessful due to the difficulty of paperwork.  After a second attempt we finally managed to get him to Canada.  He arrived in Kelowna January 1986 that was the happiest day for my family.

We are very happy here in Canada.  My family is blessed and grateful for those people who opened their hearts to welcome us, to help us, to teach us, and to bring us up in Canada.  We can never thank them enough for what they did for us, and as long as we live we will never forget them.

In closing, I want to say that Canada has the most generous, warm, and caring people.  We are very glad that we chose to come here.  Canada gave my family a new life, this is our new home and I would not trade it for anywhere else in the world!!!