Every woman has a story. And, like all stories, if you change one page, one paragraph, or even one word, you could change her story.
This is my story.
I was born a girl into a culture that still prefers and elevates boys. I was born into a war-torn country whose new government had stripped its citizens of all their rights and freedoms.
Significantly, I was born to parents who were determined to not let these dismal factors prevent their daughter from experiencing the very best that life could offer -- even if that meant risking their lives, leaving their friends and family, and fleeing from the only home they had ever known.
Thus, at the age of 3 months, I became one of the youngest boat refugees to escape Vietnam.
Change her story…
My mother didn't just change her story when she decided to escape. She also changed my future the day she refused to listen to her parents, who desperately persuaded her to leave me behind.
They had insisted that it would be safer to send for me when I was older, and after -- no one dared to think “if” -- she and my father had successfully made the perilous journey.
Despite the logic behind their arguments, she couldn’t do it. I was the reason they were escaping in the first place, so I had to come along.
This courageous conviction sustained her as she held my malnourished body throughout the 10 days we were at sea. We were trapped below in the hold of a tiny fishing vessel with 195 other refugees while my dad, who was a national swimming athlete, assisted the captain on the deck. Hope burned on, despite the terrors of a tropical monsoon, illness from seasickness, starvation, and dehydration, and even a lost anchor.
This picture of a young girl was taken by World Vision on February 14, 1979, aboard a ship holding about 2,100 refugees from Vietnam. (Photo: Eric Mooneyham/World Vision)
And this hope was rewarded when the tenth day revealed the sight of land and the shores of Hong Kong. After waiting an entire day to be granted asylum by the governor, we were processed and detained in one of the Kowloon refugee camps.
Everyone had survived the journey, including me.
But my story certainly didn’t end there. In fact, this was when stories like mine and thousands of other boat refugees surged through the media and came alive via televisions around the world. The plight of the Vietnamese became heart-wrenching, Technicolor realities that created an incredible ripple effect around the globe.
Many countries had started pushing us refugees away by closing their shores or their borders by capping asylum quotas. World leaders, however, were forced to take notice when thousands of citizens in countries across the globe began to cry out on behalf of refugees like me. Together, they petitioned their governments to take in more boat refugees, and they privately sponsored those whom their government could not aid.
In the end, nearly 3 million people left Vietnam and the surrounding countries of Laos and Cambodia. The United States alone has resettled 1.4 million of these refugees, 900,000 of whom were from Vietnam.
Imagine that: Some 1.4 million stories were changed during this pivotal time in the United States alone -- and this, in turn, changed world history.
Create inspiring futures
Dr. Stan Mooneyham, former president of World Vision U.S., holds a child following Operation Seasweep, World Vision's initiative to save Vietnamese boat refugees during the late 1970s. (Photo: Jon Kubly/World Vision)
My story continued to change after my parents and I were sponsored by some amazing Christians from a small-town church in Sarnia, Ontario (about three hours southwest of Toronto).
Like many immigrant families, my parents prioritized education. My mother especially wanted me to pursue higher education. As a woman who grew up in an Asian culture, she kept reminding me that a woman's key to her future and her independence would be a solid education.
So, I decided to study political science and to pursue a career in international development. I wanted to learn all I could to help change policies and systems that would ensure inspiring futures for other girls like me.
It has been nearly four years since I started working for World Vision. Each day reminds me of the honor that I continually feel to be working here alongside others for an organization that also saved the lives of hundreds of Vietnamese boat people through its Operation Seasweep initiative during the late 1970s.
Not only is it the very same organization that helped hundreds of my own people; it is still full of caring people who are offering their time and skills to continue changing lives, three decades later.
As a former child refugee, I humbly offer my gratitude, together with every child whom World Vision has helped. I also urge you to discover your role in helping to change others’ stories. By doing so, you can use your voice and change lives at the same time.
Read related post: Operation Seasweep: A 32-year story of God's provision
You can help continue to change the lives of girls and children like Cat-Dan. Visit World Vision’s Advocate Network or Women of Vision to explore ways you can become involved. Also, check out donation opportunities that benefit girls and women around the world.