Thursday, July 03, 2008

Freedom Isn't Free

It was the early 1980s. There were many Cambodian and Vietnamese citizens who desperately wanted to find a way to get to America, and to freedom. They were languishing in horrible conditions in refugee camps around the world. They were waiting and hoping and praying for someone to sponsor them for a new chance at life.

The story I am going to tell you reminds me of this parable, which I am sure you have heard or read:

An old man had a habit of early morning walks along the beach.

One day as he looked down the shore he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”

“But young lady, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it in the sea, past the breaking waves, saying …“It made a difference for that one!” (Source Unknown)

DC's parents attended another church in our town, and they had sponsored two widowed Cambodian sisters and their children. They were eager for their brother to be able to come to America as well. Our church was approached with the idea of sponsoring this family. We were very small at the time, and I remember all of the discussion that took place before we stepped out on faith to bring the Yim family over.

At the time we contracted to sponsor them, there were 5 members of the family - Chhien, Noral, Chana, Sokoma, and Sarah (all pronounced with the accent on the last syllable). By the time everything had been processed and approved, they had twin boys - Richard and Thomas - also with pronunciation on the second syllable. That came as a bit of a shock!

I had been persuaded to be the coordinator of this project. It was quite an adventure. The first step was to find people who would pledge enough monthly funding to pay the bills - apartment, insurance, food, clothes, you know - the basics. We were blessed to find and qualify for a four-bedroom low income apartment. People brought furnishings, clothes, kitchen supplies. On April 28, 1982, we went to the airport with the church van to pick them up.

Chhien had a wonderful smile, and was very industrious. We were able to get him a bicycle to ride to the job we helped him get at the pottery factory out in the canyon. The family had become Christians in one of the camps, where someone held church services and children's Bible clubs. They arrived with one large box of possessions on his shoulder.

Noral spoke hardly any English, while the rest of the family had learned it quite well in the camps. (They had also learned some familiar old Sunday School songs while they were in the Philippines).

Chana and Sokoma were maybe 8 and 10 years old. Their English was very good, and they were very bright, sweet little girls, who were very helpful to their mother. The twins were about six months old, if I recall correctly.

Sarah was two, and just adorable. She and the twins were born in refugee camps, thus the American names. Their pronunciations were their own.

We thought they would be so thrilled with all of the room in the apartment, but we soon found that they were all sleeping in the same room, bringing mattresses from the various beds. We provided a bit of spending money, and we found out that Chhien had gone to the nearby drugstore and bought a very pricey bottle of perfume, which they splashed on their bodies generously after a cold bath or shower. We realized, after hearing the horror stories of their escape from Cambodia, that they needed the feeling of security which came from being all together. They were used to being crowded into one room.

We had committees for each area of need: someone to take them grocery shopping, someone for medical needs, someone as school liaison, someone to get them to church, and others I cannot remember at the moment. They also received WIC provisions, which helped greatly with the little ones. However, their digestive systems could not handle dairy products, so they wanted to give the milk away to us when we came to visit. They always insisted we stay for a snack when we came to visit. They also received garden produce which was brought to the residents of this complex. They always shared it with visitors as well. (I was called daily for some crisis or another, so I was often the recipient of their generosity).Noral was an excellent cook, and she used mostly vegetables, spices, rice, and a bit of meat. One day my sister, the grocery store coordinator, took Noral shopping. She kept asking for a cigar. My sis was quite puzzled, quite sure they didn't smoke - and if they did, CIGARS? She finally figured out, through much walking up and down of aisles, that she was trying to say SUGAR.

We soon learned that Noral had a large tumor on her thyroid. She needed surgery. They wanted no more children - so we were discussing tubal ligation with her. (Of course, Chhien was not eager to do the V word!) She was so very fearful. Her brother, who was in California, talked to her on the phone and convinced her that the surgery would kill her - she was convinced that the cutting open of her throat would be reminiscent of what Pol Pot did to her citizens back home in the time of war. We had to locate a Cambodian doctor (who could not practice in America) that she was willing to listen to. We loaded everybody into my car and headed to Denver, to a very large colony of their countrymen. We spent the afternoon listening to this former doctor convince her that the surgery would be good for her health, not kill her.

One day the school called me to come and talk to the nurse. It seems that the girls had been sick and the cultural way their parents handled sickness was to scrape the backbone with a spoon, hoping to release the germs. Somehow this was discovered by the school nurse and she thought they were being abused. We had to find an interpreter who could meet with us to inform them that they were in danger of losing their children to social services unless they stopped doing something they did in their own culture to care for their children - this in the land of the free and home of the brave!

Chhien was very eager to see snow, so one summer day we all piled into the car again and headed for the mountains, where there was still a remnant of winter. I'll never forget it - Sokoma got carsick and was about to lose her lunch - Chhien put his hands under her mouth and caught it, making sure none spilled in our car. We pulled over as quickly as possible and he carefully carried it down to the river and cleaned his hands off. I was impressed!

The Fourth of July came and we were so anxious to show them an American celebration. We joined our church friends for our annual tradition of watching the fireworks together on the parsonage lawn. It didn't turn out as we expected, though. The explosion of the fireworks sounded too much like war to them, and brought back horrible memories of the Pol Pot regime. They became very agitated. We took them home quickly.

After her surgery, Noral wanted very badly to join her brother in Long Beach, where there was a huge Cambodian population. She was going to the pay phone and calling him daily. They finally were able to get it across to me that they wanted to move to California to be with family. They were getting more and more fearful of the coming winter. We were just getting ready to try to round up coats, boots, gloves, mittens, caps for their large family when they packed everything up and left on the bus. They came with the one box, and left with 32.

I thought of them so often (and still do), and was so happy one night late when I was awakened by a phone call from Chhien. The girls were in high school and excelling in their grades, Noral still didn't speak good English (not necessary when you live in a totally Cambodian community), but was "fat" according to her husband. I immediately realized she did not understand our directions to her that she had to take the medicine for her removed thyroid for the rest of her life. I was able to find out the name of her doctor and make a call to him, letting him know about her history. I haven't heard since, and wonder how she is doing physically.

When they left, Chhien told me that someday he and the family would come back to visit - I kept hoping that someday they'd come driving in to my driveway. It hasn't happened yet. I would love to know what has happened to them.

We couldn't save the masses of people trapped into refugee camps, but we could rescue one family. It was a privilege and an honor. So while we're celebrating our country's birthday and our independence today, we'll be thinking of this family that we as a church family were able to help achieve their dream of independence in this great country.

Happy Fourth of July!


Sharon Lynne said...

Interesting story. Especially the cultural differences.

You showed God's love to the family. You did all you could! He is still watching over them.

They seem like sweet and humble people.

Linds said...

What a great story to read on the 4th July, Dawn. I really hope they drive up to your home one day soon. Hope, and a future. What a precious gift.

So how has the first week of retirement gone?

Happy 4th July! Have a wonderful weekend!

Maine Mom said...

This one beautiful family was definitely blessed by your service and love. Coming to America must have been quite an adjustment. I hope they are doing well.

Sammy said...

Hi Dawn,
(It's Samantha--we emailed earlier this week.)

This is so interesting to read! My husband is Vietnamese and when he was a child his family fled Vietnam towards the very end of the war. They also lived in a refugee camp until a family sponsored them. They lived with the family for several months until they were able to afford a home of their own. Both of my husband's parents were educated in Vietnam so they spoke English, but their accents made it difficult at first to find work. But soon they did and after several years they were able to buy their own home, and later, to send all five children to college.

But they struggled for many, many years. I've known my husband's family for many years now and I often think of how they had to flee Vietnam so quickly, with only the clothes they were wearing. I just cannot imagine how it would feel to leave everything you know. But I've never really stopped to think about the family that sponsored them, and what an incredible thing that was for them to do.

You have made me think about the other people involved in a story I feel deeply connected to.
Thank you.

And God bless you all for helping that lovely family from Cambodia.


Irishlace said...


Thank you for sharing this story. I read you daily.

I am the director of an Adult Ed and English as a Second language program in Missouri. I would love to have someone with your heart and background volunteering with our ESL students. You'd bring a sensitivity for the challenges they face. I believe your local program would consider themselves highly fortunate if they had someone like you.

Happy 4th,

Nadine said...

What a great story of making a difference. I love the starfish story also. Thank you for sharing and I pray that one day you will have contact with them again and know how they are doing.

Happy 4th.

Sioux said...

Wonderful story, Dawn. Hope you and yours have a lovely Independence Day!

Diane@Diane's Place said...

I wonder how many more people you affected by helping that family. Love and caring shared with others multiplies exponentially.

Happy 4th of July!

Love and hugs,


PEA said...

Happy 4th of July to you and your loved ones, dear Dawn. I do hope you all had a wonderful day!! I so enjoyed reading this story...what a difference you all made to that family's lives. We can't help everyone in need but by helping even ONE person/family, it makes all the difference in the world! xoxo

Christa said...

Great story, I really enjoyed reading it. The school I work at is mostly Asian, I work with the children in these families and some 'newcomer' children (those recently over. I love to hear these stories as the parents relate their coming to the U.S. You have made such a difference in their lives which will be indefiently. I hope they do come back and drive into your driveway.
God Bless

Needled Mom said...

What an interesting story, Dawn. My in-laws took in three Vietnamese brothers into their home as well. They arrived on Halloween and found it very interesting to see children coming to the door and receiving candy as they paraded in their costumes. Of course we were trying to explain all of it with a severe language barrier. The boys became very close to all of us and eventually got their feet on the ground, opened a restaurant and were able to bring their entire family of parents and eight children over to live here. Our family was always very adament to not take advantage of the system but to accomplish things on their own. To this day they are perfect examples of what can be great about immigrants. They loved our country from the start and have continued to show appreciation and pride throughout the years.

Tammy said...

Dawn, this was such a great story...what an incredible way that God used you and your family during that time! I really hope that someday you will hear from them again...

Hope you had a nice 4th weekend...

Simply Heart And Home said...


I'm late in commenting but I just wanted to let you know what a powerful story that is. We can serve God greatly starting with just one prayer and taking one small step. The rest is in His hands.

God bless you and your church for ministering to that family. Thank you for sharing with us.


Midlife Mom said...

What a wonderful story Dawn! How blessed those people were to have your church sponsor them. I hope you do see them again sometime when you least expect it, what a nice surprise that would be!

Laura said...

Oh, Dawn...
You brought back such wonderful memories to me. My parents sponsored two Cambodian refugee families...a widowed woman and her four children, and then a husband and wife and their one daughter. Your story sounds SO MUCH like ours. Some day I'll have to tell their stories.

My parents also sponsored two Russian refugee families...another story in its own right...

The Broken Man said...

What an amazing story - and what a difference to that family's life.

The Broken Man