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Meet Tammy Vo
By Chris Sparks (Feb 6, 2016)
The following first appeared in our Spring 2016 issue of Marian Helper magazine. Order a free copy.
Marian Helper Tammy Vo has a hair salon, three children, and one heck of a story to tell. A parishioner at Good Shepherd Church in Pittsburg, California, Tammy is one of the Vietnamese boat people, the wave of refugees who fled Vietnam in the wake of the Communist takeover in 1975. We spoke to her in 2015 at the regional North American Congress on Mercy in Oakland, California, for which she served as a volunteer.
Growing up, most of your life was the Vietnam War. What year did you decide to leave Vietnam?
Around 1978. I tried to escape about six times. One time, I got captured by the Viet Cong and was put in jail for 30 days, and so I couldn't go back to school anymore. At that moment, there was no reason for me to stay behind.
How did you successfully escape?
I left Vietnam in 1980 by boat with 85 other people. The engine died, and we were floating in the ocean for about seven days. Pirates came and raped the women and stole from us. They left me alone because I was holding a child — not mine, but they thought it was. Then, finally, we got hit by the boat of one of the groups of pirates, and our boat was sunk.
How did you survive?
I found wood. I was holding it, and then a guy came and told me that that was his boat, it was his wood, so he just took it away. Then I happened to find another one that was smaller. But then, I was swimming around and saw one of the others who'd just got married, and he told me that his bride passed away. I didn't see him have anything to hold onto, so I gave him my wood. I was swimming, and I heard somebody tell me that if I didn't have anything to hold on, hold on to the [dead] body next to me. It kept me going.
How many days were you in the water?
Sunset to sunrise. I never stopped praying the Hail Mary. That's what I always treasure, the Hail Mary. Then later on, when the sun rose, it was beautiful, but then the reality really kicked in for me because now I could see everything, and the ocean is scary. I was really panicking, and so I asked Mama Mary, I said, "I know that you love me, and if you still love me, have somebody come and pick me up. I don't think I can live any longer." A little bit later, I heard the boat come directly to me.
You were rescued off the coast of Thailand.
Yes. They had to jump out and pick me up. As soon as I got up to their boat, they gave me a blanket and a little medication. I drank it. Fifteen minutes later, my body had warmed back up. They took me to their house, which was right next to a temple. They fed me and took care of me for about 19 days. Then I went out to the refugee camp. There I stayed for about six to eight months.
How did you get from the refugee camp in Thailand to the United States?
My sisters that were here before me, they sponsored me. Two older sisters left Vietnam about a year before me, one in 1978, one in 1979. They made it all right. They live in Sacramento. Mom was still back in Vietnam. [She's since died.] Dad passed away.
As a former refugee, what do you think of the current debates about our role in welcoming refugees?
This country has been known for helping out. I believe it's an amazing country. It's just our legacy. We have to help them, especially the civilians. It's not their fault. As Christians, we have to help everybody. They are our brothers and sisters. When I come here, I have to take care of this country. You have to lift others up. You have to help. I'm hoping that these people come in. This country is given to me by God. This country has given me a second life. So I owe this country.
Why is it so important for Catholics to welcome strangers?
Mama Mary asked us to share the love for others, for Jesus, so that she can bring us closer to Jesus. Pope Francis also asked us to help the refugees out. It comes with the suffering and comes with the mercy. I don't think they're a "stranger" to me — because they are human beings. I just call them my brothers and sisters. Mother Mary asks us to help everybody.
What does the Divine Mercy teach us about taking care of refugees and other strangers in need?
Divine Mercy is not "You're helping one day and not the next." It's a way of life.
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