From Fugitive at Sea TO Refugee and U.S. Citizen The Miraculous Journey of Michelle Phung-Tambaoan
For most American teens, the 1980’s were a time of big hair and Bon Jovi songs. For Michelle Phung-Tambaoan it was a time of fleeing communist rule in Viet Nam and starting again in America with nothing but the clothes on her back. At just 13-years-old, Michelle was separated from her parents, attacked by pirates, and forced to live off two bowls of rice per day in a refugee camp. Having been raised by Christian parents, in a country where freedom of religion was not permitted, Michelle looked fear in the eyes and found strength through her faith in Jesus Christ. “Even at age 13, I had faith in me that made me strong for a little girl,” recalled Michelle.
Though life as “fugitive” seemed tragic, Michelle was full of hope and gratitude. “I was fortunate that my family believed in God,” explained Michelle. Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Mathew 4:4. When pirates stole all Michelle’s food and water on her five-day boat journey from Viet Nam to Thailand, her faith in these words was put to the test. It was during Michelle’s third pirate attack, in which the head pirate “grabbed” her, that she cried out to the Lord, “If you save me, I promise I will use my life for whatever you want me to do, whoever you want me to serve.” In a miraculous turn of events, God saved Michelle’s life.
After a year of living in desolate refugee camps, Michelle finally made it to the United States. While completing high school, she worked as a custodian cleaning toilets and in fields picking strawberries to pay for her one room home. She went on to earn a bachelor degree, master’s degree, and an esthetician certification. Michelle never forgot her promise to God. She rounded out her master’s degree by acquiring a marriage and family therapy (MFT) license. Risen sat down with Michelle to hear more about her incredible story.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: What kind of turmoil were you experiencing in Viet Nam that caused your family members to risk their lives and flee?
Michelle Phung-Tambaoan: When I reflect back, there are so many memories. This is very emotional for me, but I love to really talk about what happened to me personally and my family. I was 13. As a teenager, I didn’t know as much of what was going on, but it did impact my lifestyle. I knew my family wanted us to escape from Viet Nam to a better country, which was the United States of America. At that time, we didn’t really have the freedom to go to school. We did go to school, but everything they taught was political. They brainwashed us that Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh was the one you idolize. You had to say his full name or you could get in trouble for disrespect. In Vietnamese, we called him Great Uncle Ho Chi Minh. Every single family had to have a picture of him just like he was our God. I still remember my family happened to be able to buy a copy machine, and we had a great business because everyone needed to have a picture of Ho Chi Minh. They [the government officials] had to come to you and make sure you had a copy of his picture. Our family was Christian and we didn’t believe in doing that. We only believe in God, not to idolize a human being.
The communist government of Viet Nam didn’t like freedom of religion. They wanted to brainwash us. They knew that my family believed in God and that we went to church. They would come to our church and watch us. They were looking to persecute us for our religion. They left us alone for a little bit, and that’s when my parents knew they had to do something. My parents really started the hard work to save their money, so that we could escape from Viet Nam. But the economy at that time was bad. We didn’t even have enough rice. This is communism we are talking about. Everything was scarce and very limited. Everything needed to be reserved. And money had no value. So instead of saving money, we had to save gold. Every month the government would change the value of the money. I remember one experience when my mom saved up a little money and didn’t think we would have enough to escape Viet Nam. She thought at least we could use the money to move to the big city, Saigon, and get a better education. We lived in a smaller city where education was scarce. She said, “You know what? I’m going to go up there and buy a little condo so that you, your brothers, and your sister can go to school.” That night she applied to get a home. The next day, the money she had, which was called dong, had lost its value. They said, “Sorry, this money has no value.” It went from say like a $100,000 down to $10,000. A lot of people were suicidal. They ran down and fell from the cliff.
RM: Was it the centralized government that was making the changes with the currency and the value of the money?
MP: Correct. The reason was they did not want people to have money. They wanted to control the money. They wanted total control of the economy. In order for them to do that, they always let you know the money you had was worth nothing. But my mom came home and decided that was not the future she wanted for her children. We saved our money, but we couldn’t go to school. We are Christian, and they were about to persecute us. We didn’t have freedom of religion, education or speech. Also, we were more ethnic Vietnamese because my father was Chinese. They did not like mixed ethnicities and they put us in a category of betrayal to the country. We lived a fearful life. The moment you said anything bad about communism, you could get caught, and you would go to jail.
It was a sailboat with a little board covering and we all had to hide underneath that. There was no air. It was smelly. It was dark. And we had to sneak up, just to get air.
RM: With the economy so bad, how did your parents make a living to save up the gold needed to escape?
MP: We lived in one of the last cities in South Viet Nam called, Ca Mau. We left in 1982 because it was strict one hundred percent communist control. My father was a herbalist and we had a pharmacy store. But people could not afford to pay [for his products]. So my mom would go out into the country where her family had a couple of acres. She would cut trees into small pieces and sell them for money. The culture of the economy was so tough. Everything was so scarce. Also, she would cook yams, and sell them in front of our house to make money. Rice at that time was so limited that we had to find different alternatives for food. There was a high demand for food, but a low supply. Not even a low supply. NO supply. We lived in a city, so we didn’t have a cow or chickens. But my mom’s side had a farm in a rural area. Once in a while, they would bring us one or two chickens. Also if people came into our store and said, “You know what? I have two chickens. Would you trade these for some medication?” We would do it.
RM: Would you say that your family was middle class because they had the means to send you out of Viet Nam?
MP: Yes. That is correct. We had a little bit more means to make money. But the government did not want us to leave. They wanted us to stay in Viet Nam so they could torture us, so we could do forced labor. I remember one time when my whole family went out into the rural area to live and the government forced the people living there to do labor. We were able to navigate out and stay in the city. But we knew that if we stayed there, eventually we would be caught, and would have to go back into the rural areas. Every time my mom made money she would go buy gold. We paid for our trip from Viet Nam to Thailand by paying in gold. We were considered fugitives because we had to use the black market to escape. These people don’t like money, they like gold. My mom was able to save enough for four of her seven children to escape.
RM: I understand that your social class determined the quality of boat you could use as a refugee. Do you remember what type of boat you traveled in? And what were the conditions like?
MP: Yes. We went out late at night to a small sailing boat. We pretended we were just going out of town. There was one sailor and three families in that boat. The sailor was also a Vietnamese citizen who wanted to escape from Viet Nam, but we paid him in gold. It was hectic. It was scary because as we rode in that sailing boat, remember there were government [officials] all over the place. They could just call us and say, “Stop! Who is in there?” So we had to hide. It was a sailboat with a little board covering and
we all had to hide underneath that. There was no air. It was smelly. It was dark. And we had to sneak up, just to get air. If a political staffer or police officer saw us, then we would all be in trouble. It was terrifying. Then we transferred from the sailboat to a big boat, called a night boat. But when I say big boat, it wasn’t really big. We didn’t have anywhere to go to the bathroom on the boat, so either we held it, or we had to live in it. When I reflect back, it scares me. We were brave to use that old boat to go out into the ocean. My experience was that the moment we went out in the ocean, it was crazy, the water even came into the boat. That meant the boat was so, so small. It wasn’t tailored for the ocean at all.
RM: Even the small waves that were just a few feet would crash right in?
MP: Absolutely. I still can smell that water and feel it coming in, touching my face. We didn’t even have a cover on top of the boat. It was open to the air. There were 113 people with only maybe one small cover in the back. Going through that journey from Viet Nam on the sea, seeing the water, feeling the water, it impacted the rest of my life. Water calms me now, but it also reminds me of what a life I went through [tears]. It motivates me.
RM: You said that your parents have seven children, but they sent only four of their children. Why didn’t your parents and your three other siblings come with the four of you?
MP: My parents left their children ages; 13, 15, 16, and 17 all minors, for two reasons. Number one, if they came with us, and we all got caught, we would all go to prison. And when we came out, we would have no future. We would have no family. We would have no house, nothing. The chances that we would be caught were very high, a ninety percent chance that we would be caught. That’s how high it was! We were taking risks. So my parents said, “We have to sacrifice. We will stay back. We are going to let our four children go. We pray, ‘And by God’s will and God’s love they will be safe.’” On a side note, my parents tried to let one of my brothers go first. He got caught. They tried to let my older sister go. She got caught. The third time they sent their two younger ones, my brother and me. We got caught. So there were many, many attempts. My older siblings went to jail. They had horrible punishments. They were beaten. They had no food. And these were minors?! My parents had to go around [the system] on the black market, to give them money and get them out. This time they thought, “Let’s send four of them and see what happens.” My oldest brother, who was 24 at the time, volunteered to stay home and take care of my parents as they aged. My youngest sister was only eight-years-old, so she was too young to go with us. My oldest sister was very beautiful and my parents didn’t want to risk her being taken by the pirates.
So my parents said, “We have to sacrifice. We will stay back. We are going to let our four children go. We pray, ‘And by God’s will and God’s love they will be safe.’”
RM: So the pirate attacks are what prompted your parents to dress your 16-year-old sister as a nun for this final voyage? Did you experience pirate attacks on your boat?
MP: Yes. We lived in a time where people were constantly getting caught and sharing their information with us in letters. So we had a lot of information. We knew one thing for certain, that pirates were patrolling the area. They knew the Vietnamese were trying to escape. The pirates wanted to take this as an opportunity. They thought, “We will come out here. We will rob them. We will get their money. And we will rape these girls, these ladies.” At this time, my sister was sixteen, and my mom knew that for the Thai pirates she was like a flower. The moment they saw her, they would want to rape her. Knowing this, my parents told her she was going to pretend to be a nun, to dress like one, and act like one. We had been told and updated from friends who had been grabbed. They sent my parents information that said if they allowed their children to go, they would have to do these things. I had another older sister who was very pretty and my mom said, “We don’t want her to go because if she goes, they are going to rape her. They are going to keep her and bring harm to her.” It’s just horrible. Horrible.
So going back to the four of us, my 16-year-old sister totally disguised herself as a nun. For me, my mom said, “You are only thirteen. Don’t worry about it. You are a little kid.” Because of that, we went as just the four of us. Our whole journey from there was five days and four nights. As we traveled in that scary boat and went up and over the waves, the pirates saw us coming. They said, “Stop!” Because the boat we were riding in wasn’t strong, we had to stop. They would just pull up and rob everything that was valuable. They stopped us three times. The first time, they took all our gold, money, and food. Then they let us go. The second time, another pirate ship pulled up and yelled, “Stop!” So we stopped and they took all our water. I remember I was so thirsty, that I drank water from the ocean. It was so salty that I could not drink it. But we are talking about three days without water! We were not even able to function. We were so dehydrated. I knew some families on our boat who decided to drink urine, especially because they had little kids. They thought this was at least something they could put in their mouth [that wasn’t salt water]. Whatever could feed their thirst, they would do it. It was courageous. It was brave. You just did it without thinking. It was just survival.
The third time the pirates came, they looked and saw that there was nothing else to rob. So they got mad. They thought, “We came all the way out here and didn’t get anything from you. Now we are going to grab some of the women.” And that’s what they did. They started to go around and take the women into their boat. They saw my sister and they did not take her. It was crowded and I was sitting next to her. I was just a kid wearing a white t-shirt, but the leader grabbed my hand and said, “Go!” He was loud. He was big. He was grabbing my hand, but I resisted. I still recall my brothers tried to protect me. They held me back. Then the other pirates snapped at them. They pushed my brothers down. But in my head, I knew I was going to resist. I still remember the voice of our captain saying, “Go with these pirates otherwise they are going to cause more trouble. You have to follow them. You have to listen.” I didn’t respond back. Instead I prayed [silence] [tears]. I prayed, “God, save my life. I can’t go through this. I can’t.” [More tears] God heard me. God hears! He said, “I’m going to save you. I want to save you!” So I thought, “Resist. Resist.” Then I believe an angel came and made that pirate release my hand. He said to the other pirates, “Leave that girl alone! You cannot touch her! You cannot touch this girl!” He walked away and saw a little fabric. Finally, he took it and covered my head to show that no one could touch “this girl.” It was a miracle!
RM: Did any of your female friends get taken advantage of by the pirates on their journey to the United States?
MP: Yes. Actually, it led me to what I am doing now as a Marriage and Family Therapist. One of the girls who was with us in the boat, she was captured and raped several times. Somehow she was able to escape and make it to a police station. She told them she was a refugee and needed to be in the refugee camp. They dropped her off, she navigated herself, and we met up with her again. She shared her story with us. She survived, but this killed her as a person. She still has nightmares. She suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She has trouble getting close to a man because the thoughts come to her. It reminds me of what if God allowed that pirate to take me. I remember at that time I promised God [silence] [tears], I said to God, “If you save me, I promise I will use my life for whatever you want me to do, whoever you want me to serve.” [More tears] That was my promise to God. If I would have been captured, I would not have been able to have a normal life.
RM: And you have been able to help others including your friend to live a more normal life, a healthier life?
MP: Yes. At the time of her capture, she was not a Christian. But when she came to us in the refugee camp, we took her in and shared the love of Jesus Christ with her. She became a Christian. So it is also a miracle that she even wanted to believe in God.
I believe an angel came and made that pirate release my hand. He said to the other pirates, “Leave that girl alone! You cannot touch her! You cannot touch this girl!”
RM: Did you suffer other kinds of abuse at the refugee camps and did the United States play a part in running these camps?
MP: At that time, there was an international refugee organization and the United States did have some part in it. The Thai refugee program received contributions from the countries in this organization. The international organizations had to depend on the local governments to make sure they were giving us food and giving us supplies to live. But basically, we just lived in a tent at the ocean. I personally was very blessed to be Christian. So when we got to the camp we looked for Christian churches in the camps. We had brothers and sisters [in Christ] who had been there longer than us. It was like a community. You went in and found where you belonged. We lived there waiting until the day we could go to a third country by relatives or a sponsor from the government. Some of the refugees had relatives sending them money as they waited to go to the United States, Canada, or Australia. Being a part of the church group we were more protected. But the camp was still run by the Thai government, so we didn’t leave our tents except to go to church. I heard of some girls who would just go out to the ocean to enjoy the water and these Thais came, captured them, and raped them. It was not safe.
The Thais treated us like nothing. They made us line up for food, and only twice a day they gave a little bit of rice in one small container for a family of four. The food was horrible. Let’s say the international organization gave the camp one dollar for every refugee. The government leaders would only spend ten cents per refugee on food. Then they kept the rest for themselves. We survived because when we were attacked by pirates, my sister swallowed our gold. She put it in her mouth. I know it sounds crazy. But if anything was found on your body, they would take it. The only way they couldn’t take it was if you swallowed it. My sister held it for days, and when we arrived, she had to go to the bathroom. We used that gold to buy food. Because I was a minor I was okay. But the young adults, especially the men, they had to do a lot of labor. The Thai staff was paid to do the labor, but they kept the money for themselves while the refugees worked, except when the staff from the United States would come. They came from the United Sates to interview us to make sure they knew who we were. They don’t just let you come in because you have a sponsor. It is a process. They want to make sure you are honest. They want to make sure you are who you are. If they suspect something, they can reject your file.
RM: How long did you stay in the Thai camp and were you transferred to any other camps?
MP: We stayed in two camps. I stayed in the Thai camp for six months. This was what they call a transitional camp. Then they transferred us to a camp in the Philippines. They knew that we already had a sponsor in the United States. In order for us to be transferred, we had to have a sponsor. My father said, “When you leave, do not go anywhere except for the United States.” But we didn’t have any relatives in the United States. My father contacted his best friend, who lived in Utah, to be our sponsor. We were transferred to the Philippines so we could learn English before we came to America. We were at that camp for another six months. Wherever we went, we created a church. Actually, my sister was a leader of the women’s ministry at our church in the Philippines. Our lives were all about church, serving, and loving the Lord. A lot of loving missionaries from the United States ran the churches in these camps and taught us English. That was the mission of the WWO (Worldwide Outreach of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), but it was also to share the gospel. This helped us to have more faith. We saw these sacrifices the missionaries made. They had this beautiful life in America, but they gave it up to come share the gospel with us. They also taught us the culture of what America would be like. They helped us assimilate. I really admired and respected America because of what I saw in these missionaries. They were on the frontier to show love, to show God.
RM: God saw you through, all the way to the United States. What was it like when you first arrived in the United States?
MP: We flew from the Philippines to the United States. We landed in Salt Lake City, Utah, in April 1983. Of course, there was still snow on the ground. The moment we walked off the plane it was cold, super, super cold. Now the Catholic Community Services had given us a jacket, but that was it. I could see my breath. It was so beautiful though. It looked like the little postcards we had seen in the Philippines of a house with snow. Then this postcard had become our reality and all we could say was, “Wow! We don’t need these postcards anymore.” We had never experienced that kind of cold or snow, so it was a hard adjustment. This was a totally different climate. It was totally new.
We got right into going to school. I started ninth grade. I had to walk two blocks to school. It was so windy. I think that’s one of the reasons I ended up moving to San Diego. We aren’t used to that weather. That’s why there is such a huge Asian population in California. My older brother had just turned eighteen, so he could not go to high school. He found a way to go to a vocational school while we lived with our sponsor family. We didn’t have any money. We only had a little support from the government, but everything we received, we gave to our sponsor family. And somehow they were also envious. They could not accept that we got to go to school. They treated us very poorly. Finally, we had to leave that house and rent a one room place, just to start all over again.
RM: Did your parents and three other siblings eventually make it to the United States? If so, what was that process like?
MP: My parents and siblings could not come until the four of us kids became U.S. citizens. It took us ten years to become citizens which enabled us to sponsor them. We could only sponsor my parents and two sisters, not my brother. My sisters were still single, but my brother was married with two children. It took ten more years for my parents to become U.S. citizens and sponsor my brother with his family. My parents were in their sixties, but they still went to school to learn English and U.S.History. My father could understand English, but he had trouble speaking it. He failed his citizenship test three times. He finally passed on the fourth try at age seventy. My mother also failed three times. But they did not give up. My parents said, “It is our diligent duty to become citizens and sponsor our son.” They had a translator help them communicate their answers. They knew the history, but they just had trouble communicating it. Finally, they both passed. After ten years of living in the United States, they were able to sponsor my brother and his family. We all live here spread out in Utah, Texas, Minnesota, and California. Praise God we are all here.
RM: What is your take on the current Syrian refugee crisis and immigration in general?
MP: As far as immigration, we came in with permission, not illegally. We were persecuted in Viet Nam. We had to pay money to leave. It was a life and death situation. But we believed “In God We Trust.” We believed in American values. My heart goes out to those Syrians. I see myself in them, but I understand both sides of the argument. Both sides have good reasons to believe what they believe. I believe it’s all about knowing our limitations. In order for refugee programs to work, people need to be able to take refugees into their homes. But people who are struggling can’t help or else everyone suffers. We have to take care of ourselves or eventually, we run out of resources and energy. Jesus was a good example of this in the Bible. The disciples kept telling Him how many people they had fed and taught. They kept helping others, but they hadn’t even fed themselves. Then Jesus said in the gospel of Mark, “’Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’” [“So they went away in a boat by themselves to a solitary place,” Mark 6:32.] Then they were able to feed five thousand people. The Bible says, “There is a time for everything.” [Ecclesiastes 3] We need to be aware of our limitations. I believe this as a human being personally. This is why I do what I do.