Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Refugee I Rely On, Part One

By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

My heart and kidney are failing. I may be near the end of the road. And for all the prestigious men of medicine who’ve tended me in six countries over 60 years, it now comes down to this:

The last man who can save my life does not come from a long line of fine physicians, nor generations of Ivy League laureates.

The last man who can save my life is, of all things, one of the resourceful Vietnamese Boat People. One of the harried thousands fleeing by sea to save themselves when the North Vietnamese Army overran South Vietnam in 1975.

If you’re old enough, you’ll recall this short and furious wave of immigration. TV images of frantic Vietnamese vying with the US Embassy staff for an inch of space on the last helicopters leaving the Embassy roof in Saigon. It was a graphic, distressing vision of the final hours in the first war we’d lost in America’s entire history.

But there was a silver lining. Few reached those helicopters, but many of the best and brightest down below scrambled toward the open sea and jumped on anything that would float. 

We didn’t know it at first, but these resourceful victims of war, with their brains and skills would turn out be one of the most valuable waves of immigration for America’s life and economy in the last 100 years.  From rice farmers transported to new paddies in the Sacramento Delta to a future heart transplant surgeon named Si Mai Pham.  By the 1980’s, Vietnamese Americans had higher average incomes than all other major ethnic groups—black, white and Hispanic.

But on that April day in 1975, Si Mai Pham was simply a second-year student at the pharmacy school in Saigon, near the US Embassy. With the North Vietnamese Army beginning to enter the city, he saw first-hand the American helicopters hovering above and his countrymen desperately trying to claw up the Embassy’s fortified walls. He quickly understood that in the chaos of war, his liberty would depend on his wits.

Pham fled toward downtown and wound up at Saigon’s harbor where there was only a single South Vietnamese coast guard vessel docked. He clambered aboard with scores of other civilians. But there was a hitch.  The boat wouldn’t start-- the reason the Vietnamese Navy had left it behind.  The more dexterous of the escapees began working to make repairs with their bare hands.  Over the next six hours, with soldiers and tanks from the North crisscrossing the area, the work on the patrol boat continued.  “There was so much chaos everywhere that even in daylight, the invading soldiers did not understand we were a bunch of Southerners trying to escape,” Pham recalls.

As dusk fell, the engine finally cranked over and the vessel limped out of Saigon harbor with all navigations lights extinguished to avoid capture.  All through the night, it continued aimlessly out into the South China Sea. 

And then the craft slowly began to sink. After a 24-hour nightmare on the open sea, the hungry, thirsty and frightened passengers were saved again, when a South Vietnamese battleship saw the craft and organized a high-risk transfer at sea of all the exhausted escapees.

Without provisions for them, the battleship continued on its own escape from the North Vietnamese, into US hands.  Two days later they reached the US base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. 

But for the civilians, the odyssey lasted at least three days more, as they were shuttled into a huge converted American merchant ship that took them to the island of Guam and a US Air Force base. In all, 5,000 Vietnamese were brought to a simple refugee camp with tents and basic sanitation that had been hastily set up for the wave.

It had taken almost a week to flee across the South China Sea and into the Pacific, but Si Mai Pham without English or family or anything more than the clothes on his back, had become a survivor. For Pham, the adventure was only beginning, but he remembers now, “There was nothing else to do. I had to survive.”

It was still nearly four decades before our paths would cross, but half a world away, I, too, was learning what survival was all about.

Sandy Prisant is a writer living in Florida with his wife Susan. For almost two years now, he has been chronicling his battle with a life-threatening kidney disease in a series called, "The Journey We Take Alone." To read earlier installments of this very compelling story, use the search function below and type in his name. His wife, Susan, has written her own series of equally-compelling stories under the title, "The Journey We Take Together." 

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