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The Value of Belief


Vu Thanh Thuy

Vu Thanh Thuy

By Vu Thanh Thuy

I believe in many things.

I believe in dreams, in hopes and in people. Even in the darkest moments of my life - and there have been many - I always believe that somehow the darkness will end. When there seems nothing to believe in, I have faith in achieving what seems like the impossible. Perhaps it's because I believe in destiny, but I know that if my time on earth is not up, anything is possible. The infinite possibilities make believing in the impossible easy for me to do.

In Vietnam, I was jailed twice as a political prisoner for violating the Communist laws. I faced starvation and death on a boat in the South China Sea while trying to escape from Vietnam, three different times. Once at sea, pirates held me captive on a deserted island in the Gulf of Thailand for three weeks of hell.

In all those horrible moments, the only thing I could believe in was overcoming the impossible and fleeing to safety. That kind of desperate, blind faith was able to keep me from giving up, knowing that that would be my only weapon to defend myself, my only means to survive, and my only way out of terrible situations. Ironically and mysteriously, my faith was reinforced again and again in many circumstances. Furthermore, I was ultimately rewarded beyond my wildest dreams.

When I was at my lowest, waiting for death from starvation and thirst in the South China Sea, we were ignored by passing ships that would not even stop to help us, much less rescue us, I vowed to myself that if I survived, I would come back on a ship that would not ignore people in need.

When I ran for my life as prey to be hunted down by the sea pirates, I swore that if I survived, I would tell the world the story of my people's tragic history. And I kept reminding myself and repeating those promises aloud to anyone who would listen.

At first, some people laughed at me, and sometimes, I laughed at myself. Who was I to dream the impossible?

I was just a new refugee who lived off the mercy of the United Nations and who was granted a visa to the United States. I barely spoke English, had neither money nor connections, and was just a poor and helpless Vietnamese refugee. But I kept believing and joined any organization that could help make my vows possible.

Believe it or not, people not only heard me but they helped me. France's Medecins du Monde (Physicians of the World) and Germany's Cap Anamur were two of the first organizations that joined with the Vietnamese overseas community to send ships to rescue 3,000 boat people.

It was eight years after my ordeal that I had the opportunity to return to the South China Sea. I didn't return on a regular ship but a French Navy helicopter carrier. We didn't just rescue the boat people who drifted by but actively went searching for them by helicopters. This impossible dream of mine became possible and was even documented by an ABC News crew and aired in 1989 on 20/20, hosted by Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. The impossible wasn't just possible but so much more!

During my revitalized life, I have had a long list of mysterious "impossibles" made possible by my belief. They range from the day-to-day challenge of arguing with five teenage daughters to the unexpected success of our Houston radio station despite having no business management or marketing training. In partnership with my husband - a fellow journalist and business partner - we have weathered the work conflicts and trials of running a business. Now we continue to serve our fellow countrymen by being a voice and information source for the Vietnamese American community. Even to this day, after a dozen years of expanding into more media outlets, we still rely on our journalistic skills more than our marketing ability to keep the company running.

More than 20 years ago, we missed the opportunity to tell our story in a book and movie deal because we couldn't meet the deadline while working two jobs and raising five young children. Now we have finished writing our own book.

If our story is meant to be shared with others, I know it will happen. If our story can help others, I hope it will.

I have that faith because I truly believe.

Vu Thanh Thuy's piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.

The Roger E. Joseph Prize


Boat People SOS Committee - Vu Thanh Thuy

…on the South China Sea, the lives and stories of more than 25,000 men, women, and children are forever being erased by the waves. Nonetheless, the ruthless mistreatment of these refugees is given voice through the efforts of the Boat People SOS Committee… Vu Thanh Thuy, in her own young life, fell prey to the pirates in the Gulf of Siam, and rose to represent those who have survived and triumphed over incredible odds.

Vu Thanh Thuy

Vu Thanh Thuy

Boat people: a generic term widely used for refugees fleeing their country in crowded boats, often roughly constructed and unsafe, looking for a safe haven in another country that will accept them. In the 1970s and 80s, after the Vietnam War, when Vietnam was controlled by a Communist government, thousands of Vietnamese people were forced to become "boat people," braving not only the hardships of life at sea-storms, sickness, lack of food and water-but attacks from pirates and abuse in refugee camps as well.

Vu Thanh Thuy, a journalist from South Vietnam, knew firsthand about life as one of the "boat people." Under communism, Thuy and her husband and fellow journalist Duong Phuc essentially became political prisoners. They took their young children, and after several attempts, managed to get onto a boat, hoping to find safety. The family endured the dangers of being exposed on the ocean, and were even attacked by pirates before they were eventually rescued. Knowing that people needed to learn about the plight of the refugees, Vu Thanh Thuy wrote an open letter about the situation. This was read at a UN News Conference in Thailand in 1980, prompting action.

An organization called the Boat People SOS Committee was formed in 1980 in California and Thailand to start a large-scale rescue of the "boat people." With its mission to "empower, organize, and equip Vietnamese individuals and communities in their pursuit of liberty and dignity," the BPSOS Committee rescued an estimated 3,000 people from the water during the 1980s. It also engaged the Thai Royal Navy to fight the pirates who were attacking and abducting the refugees.

As the decades progressed, however, thousands of refugees became less welcome in, and were often rejected by, the countries where they sought asylum. To address this, the Committee worked with lawyers, advocating for improvement in the conditions and policies governing the places where the former "boat people" were now living.

Having worked with the BPSOS Committee (now called simply BPSOS) in its rescue effort, Thuy and her husband started a radio station in Houston, Texas in 1999 to reach out to the Vietnamese community. They also created a Vietnamese Yellow Pages and started circulation of a newspaper. They wanted to provide a place for their community to air any concerns they had and to connect with other Vietnamese people. Since 1999, Thuy and Phuc have opened another radio station as well as a TV station.

In addition, BPSOS provides disaster relief in emergencies and support services to victims of domestic violence, and is continually fighting against human trafficking in both America and Asia. In 2011 a research institute was started to specifically address the needs of the Vietnamese-American community.

Together, Vu Thanh Thuy and the Boat People SOS are committed to working with the Vietnamese community, giving them a voice to be heard, while keeping them informed and in dialogue with one another.

Vu Thanh Thuy, center, with Ellen Joseph, right, 1989.

Vu Thanh Thuy, center, with Ellen Joseph, right, 1989.


Boat People SOS
'The Value of Belief' , an essay by Vu Thanh Thuy, reproduced on the website of Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh)
Vu Thanh Thuy as a speaker at the 2007 Vietnamese American Media conference

Copyright © 2016 The Roger E. Joseph Prize

HUFFPOST US EDITION - Saigon-Houston Radio: Our Community Rescued Itself When Harvey Came

Editor's Note: Thanh-Thuy Vu is owner of Saigon Radio KREH 900-AM, the only full-service, full-time Asian station in Greater Houston. For the city's nearly 40,000 Vietnamese residents, and for many more in Greater Houston, the station is a central hub for news and information and is now playing a central role in helping to direct rescue efforts amid the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. NAM Editor Andrew Lam interviewed Vu about how the station is weathering the storm. Below is a translation from the original Vietnamese.


Saigon radio reporter Duong Phuc walking to work

How is the Vietnamese community responding to Harvey?

There are many Vietnamese in Houston, and many of them own boats. People live near lakes and near the ocean so a lot of them fish on the weekends and have boats at the ready. Many are volunteering to help rescue others, from as far as Dallas, New Orleans and other cities. There was a Vietnamese man from Dallas. He called our station. He bought a boat on Friday. By Saturday, he was already in Houston to help rescue people. It was quite amazing!

Vietnamese restaurants are also providing food, while churches and temples are open for anyone seeking shelter. Volunteers are coming with food and clothes. They cook. They clean. They bring diapers and baby formula. Vietnamese are showing up at the George Brown Convention center to cook Vietnamese food for everyone taking shelter there. And now, as the water is receding in some areas, volunteers are organizing to clean up.

What is the role of Saigon Radio in times of emergency like this?

People have been listening to our broadcast and when they hear a call for help, they use their jet skis and their boats to go help. Many of our listeners don't speak English well, so we give them information they may not have. We tell them where the shelters nearest to them are. We also direct volunteers to those shelters or to certain addresses, as there are elder Vietnamese who are stuck.

During Katrina, Houston's Vietnamese community played a big role in helping the displaced. How are those lessons being applied now?

Katrina was a disaster for everyone, but it was also a lesson in preparedness. There was a lot more discipline and less panic this time as compared to what happened in New Orleans. As an example, city officials here allowed the release of water from the reservoirs, which initially upset a lot of people who own nice homes that were certain to be flooded. But eventually people realized it was necessary to avoid collapse of the dam and to give people time to evacuate.

A Little Story of My Most Admired People (chief among them, my husband, Dr. Bear)

By "Ms. B"
(former news reporter for the San Diego Union and Atlanta Constitution)

Back in 1979, Public Law 96-22 established the first Vet Centers, after some ten years of effort by combat vets and others who realized the veterans were facing specific kinds of readjustment problems.

In the early days, most Vet Center staffers were veterans themselves, many of them Vietnam combat veterans. One of those first Vet Center directors was "Dr. Bear," a disabled Vietnam combat veteran. He ran the Vet Center in San Diego, CA.

San Diego Vet Center circa 1985

(aka Camelot)

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs eventually opened Vet Centers nationwide. These centers helped develop many of the debriefing techniques used nowadays with traumatized populations from all walks of life.

Veterans in Southern California were responsible for many of those early lobbying and subsequent Vet Center treatment programs. Our family is proud to have been associated with these determined, compassionate veterans who fought hard and long for needed programs and treatment methodologies.

Their story has never been fully told, but we will always remember and be grateful to advocates like Randy Way, Robert Van Keuren, Jack Lyon and Rev. Bill Mahedy (whose inspiring book Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets dealt with issues deeply affecting many veterans.) And we have to include clinicians such as Shad Meshad, Rose Sandeki, Frank Walker, and the late (great) Jack McCloskey, who helped shape and implement early Vet Center treatment strategies.

Especially instrumental was Dr. Bear's friend and mentor, therapist Tom Williams (hopefully out there tooling around on his Harley somewhere.) A former Captain of Infantry in the USMC, he edited a ground-breaking book back in 1980 entitled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders of the Vietnam Veteran. Published by the Disabled American Veterans, it helped introduce the "syndrome" of PTSD to the wider community.

It greatly influenced Dr. Bear's decision to devote his life to this work.

"Dr. Bear" circa mid-'80s (back then he was Dr. Bob aka the Vet Center Team Leader)


Other early influences included John P. Wilson, Ph.D. (author of another early work published by the DAV entitled Forgotten Warrior Project) and Charles Figley, Ph.D. (who wrote early on about impacts suffered by the families of Vietnam veterans and later wrote an important book about counselors entitled Compassion Fatique: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized .)

We also will never forget Dr. Bear's dedicated staff and associates during those years. Joan Craigwell, Dave Hill, Rick Thomas, the late Robert Gurney, John Hall, the late Rob Shepard, Don Williams, Red Redwine, and so many others. And the friends who walked through the Vet Center's front door and right into our hearts -- among them: Johnny Burns, Dan Emer, Dr. John Ditzler, Barbara Small R.N., Bob Bjielke, Dr. Nolan Berman, Chris Ownby, Steve Mason, Bill Fisher, and Tony DiGesu.

Vets were also largely responsible for taking debriefing and treatment strategies into the larger community where they were adapted for use in conjunction with populations impacted by violent crime, abuse, manmade and natural disasters, and those in law enforcement and emergency response.

"Dr. Bear" participated in training counselors in many of these fields and he was a founding board member of the International Association of Trauma Counselors (now called the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists.) Many of the best trained trauma specialists in the world are members of this dynamic organization.

In 1992, "Dr. Bear" became clinical coordinator of the Veteran Administration's National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Menlo Park, CA, where he worked until his retirement. A key associate there was psychiatrist Dr. Harvey Dondershine, mentor, friend, and expert when it came to picking just the right restaurant for lunch. (Harvey, phone home. Ours, that is.)

We owe a lot to our Vietnam veterans, not just here but overseas. In Australia, for example, the veteran community benefitted from the tireless efforts of Australian Vietnam combat-medic veteran and our best mate Glen Edwards (with the support of his wife Faye and wonderful boys--now men!--Damien and Jason.)

These and other courageous
veterans have provided insights
into help and healing that could
only have come from their own
war experiences and their own
willingness to "turn the
experience to good"
(as is often said)
and reach out to others
in psychological, spiritual,
and emotional pain.

"There remains no resolution of this war
beyond each man's obligation
to his world and his conscience
to record the True inner-history
of his Vietnam experience."

Excerpt from "A History Lesson"
by Steve Mason. Published in 1986
as part of his powerful book
Johnny's Song: Poetry of a Vietnam Veteran

We would also like to thank our friends in the Vietnamese community (especially Vu Thanh Thuy and Duong Phuc) who did so much over those early years to reach out and facilitate healing in the veteran community as well as their own.

Much time has passed, but the healing work goes on. And now, a new generation of healers is taking the helm. We "old-timers" want to do all we can to support them with love, guidance, and oh yes! Even Teddy Bears!

God bless you all. And thank you. You have enriched our lives more than you know.

Semper Fi

Our Family

THE WASHINGTON POST - Hearing the Cries Of the Boat People

None of the names means much to Americans: Nhat Tien. Duong Phuc. Vu Thanh Thuy.

These are Vietnamese refugees who have been raising their voices in recent months to remind the world -- and especially Americans -- that the boat people in the Gulf of Thailand are still being drowned, murdered, robbed and raped.

These advocates know that their chances of being heard are small. The Vietnamese boat people are a cause whose time has come and gone. Like clothes, humanitarian issues quickly go out of fashion. The boat people are now as forgotten as the starving of the Sahel, the homeless of Uganda and the disappeared of Argentina. If Americans think at all of the earth's outcasts, it is now the turn of the Haitian refugees.

If any reason exists for rejecting the nation's forgetfulness of the Vietnamese boat people, it is the sheer -- and perhaps unparalleled -- barbarity that they continue to suffer at the hands of marauding pirates. According to 1981 piracy statistics compiled by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, 289 of the 357 boats that arrived in Thailand were attacked on the open seas. After the first attack, the boats averaged at least two more assaults from other pirates. The number of known deaths or murders is 484. Abductions total 199 and identified rape victims, 583.

As always, behind the numbers are the individual stories of unimaginable brutality. Reporters in the Songkhla refugee camp in southern Thailand were told by one 15-year-old of her nearly four-month captivity in the gulf after her boat was sunk. She was gang-raped as often as 30 times a day. She was passed among 14 pirate boats, bartered for fish each time.

Another woman -- a 24-year-old seamstress from Saigon -- described her two dozen rapists as "fat, black people -- almost naked -- more animal than man." In the book "Pirates on the Gulf of Siam" Nhat Tien, Duong Phuc and Vu Thanh Thuy -- who have organized the Boat People SOS Committee in San Diego -- quote a witness to a gang-rape by the pirates: "They gathered around, laughing and joking raucously as they waited their turns... The women screamed in terror. The barbaric debauchery lasted all night until daybreak... In the end, all seven women lay on the deck motionless and unconscious."

A field officer for the United Nations refugee commission, after visiting an island of refugees where the men were murdered, the women raped and babies smashed against rock cliffs, said the inhumanity was something "I would not have believed possible in the 20th century."

Behind the human tragedies are political ones: the inability of the impoverished Thai government to wage an effective anti-piracy campaign, the near indifference of Western nations to the continuing atrocities, and the frustrations of groups like the U.N. refugee commission in rallying international outrage against the piracy.

Six weeks ago, the U.N. group appealed by letter to several developed nations for funds to create a $3.6 million program to help the Thai government police the pirates. But instead of money pouring in, as might be expected considering the documented horrors, such countries as France, West Germany, Australia and Switzerland have given only $2.3 million. The Reagan administration has pledged to come up with only $600,000. It is a shamefaced spectacle of miserliness: the United States, which spent $141 billion on a dommed military solution to Vietnam's problems, is now willing to part with only pennies on a peaceful program to help a few of the war's losers.

Some sympathy is owed the Thai government. It is a geographical accident that Thailand's shores are sought out by the boat people. Many of its fishermen have been helpful to the Vietnamese castaways. The government itself is already beleaguered trying to absorb the much larger hordes of land refugees pouring over the Kampuchean border. In addition, even if the $3.6 million is raised, the anti-piracy program is likely to be inadequate. Should it fail, the Thai government will be set up to take the blame.

In fact, Thai officials play only one of many minor roles in this tragedy. The largest responsibility belongs to the United States. To stop the piracy would be a small payment of the large moral debt we still owe in Southeast Asia.