Erin's Story, Part 2
Glory to the Lord Who Saved Us from the Sea
by Erin Pham Steinhauer
My name is Erin Pham. I am forty years old this year. I am a wife, a mother of three, and have been a corporate businesswoman for twenty years. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, at the height of the U.S.-Vietnam war, and left Vietnam on a wooden boat four years after the war ended. I have eleven brothers and sisters all living in the U.S. and countless nieces and nephews. My mother raised all of us on her own in America from the time we reached Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1979. My father was jailed by the Communist government at the end of the war and never reunited with his family.
This is a story about how God had saved me and my family from going down into the Pacific Ocean in 1979. We escaped Vietnam to find freedom and reunite with our family in America. I was nine years old when we began our journey. At the time of our escape, over 70 percent of Vietnamese boats leaving Vietnam never reached their intended destinations; many were pillaged by Thai pirates (who did some of the worst things imaginable to refugee boat passengers) and the rest went down into the deep sea.
Given the slim chance of survival, my mother’s strategy was to divide the family into different groups that would leave at different times. My eldest brother and sister were the first to leave at ages sixteen and fourteen. Then, my fifteen-year-old older brother took my three-year-old younger brother with him. Then two other brothers and a sister went under the care of my aunt and uncle. Finally, my mother took the rest of her children. All in all, four different groups of boat people from 1975 to 1979. Given the risks of the journey and our being separated from the start, it was miraculous that we all survived and reunited in Lancaster, PA. Prior to the war, my family was considered one of the wealthiest in Saigon, and I lived in complete bliss without a day of worries. When we arrived in America, my mother had $2.50 in her pocket and a pack of twelve children from ages two to twenty-one.
For security reasons, we had kept the date and time of our escape secret until the last minute. And so, the night that we left Saigon, I was asleep in my bed when my aunt awakened me and told me to get dressed for the journey. I was very excited about the journey to America and, as a skinny little tomboy I was ready for the promised great adventures that lay ahead. I put on my favorite jean shorts, a white polo shirt and blue leather sandals. My siblings joined me; there were three sisters and my youngest brother (two years old) setting out that night on rickshaws. The drivers were waiting for us outside our grandmother’s home as we were hiding out there. The night was unusually breezy and, as we rode through the nearly empty streets of Saigon, I looked closely at all the familiar sights. I wanted to take them in as much as I could because I knew that it was going to be the last time I’d ever see this beautiful city. At the same time, I felt an incredible sense of elation, excitement, and privilege to be so lucky to go to America.
Certainly I did not know about the perilous road ahead before we would reach our final destination.
The rickshaws took us to an old stilt house built on a branch of the Saigon canal that leads to the river and eventually to the open sea. The eldest of my siblings traveling with us at the time was fifteen years old, and she directed us to go quietly onto a small covered wooden rowboat in the back of the house. We got in and hunched down, five little lumps with our heads down under the thick canvas roof that shielded us from outside view. A man and his wife began rowing the boat, pretending to be on a fishing trip, down the river towards our meeting point with my mother—she had to leave separately because we were considered “flight risks” and were under constant surveillance by the secret police.
About thirty minutes into the journey, a police patrol boat came alongside of us and began to ask questions about our destination. If we had been discovered, it would have been a disaster, as the punishment for escaping Vietnam was severe – imprisonment, torture, even death. Although we knew they wouldn’t do this to kids, if we were caught, our mother would be in big trouble and we would not be able to continue our journey. The man rowing the boat joked to the police. “I am taking people to America!” he said, and laughed, and somehow was able to convince them that he and his wife were just going to stake out some fishing locations. We were paralyzed by fear as we silently held our breath until the police were gone and out of sight.
We continued down the river and finally arrived at our destination at early dawn. We walked along a barren beach and came upon a wooded area where we saw our mother waiting at the edge with a big smile and open arms. We had made it to the “meeting point”: Phase One of our journey was complete.
My mother explained that we would wait until dusk to go out on the “big boat that will sail us to America.” I was anxious and shifty the rest of the day, and couldn’t settle down no matter what I did, as I was filled with excitement thinking about this huge boat. I finally found some other kids to run around with and explore the dry, barren landscape.
Getting from the shore to the small rowboats that would take us to the larger transport boat was difficult. It was a fine evening, a bit windy, and the tides had receded about 100 yards out into the ocean, leaving a field of warm, squishy muddy swamp. At this point, I began to realize this wasn’t going to be a joy ride to America. We all took our shoes off and trudged into the mud. My mother told us to hold on tightly to each other’s arms in case someone could not pull himself or herself up from the thick mud. As we went, I felt the mud seep between my toes and rise up above my legs, knees, hands, arms, and chest. Suddenly, I heard my mother, who was carrying my two-year-old brother, let out a loud, terrified scream. She had seen a snake crawling on the surface nearby and panicked. She just stood frozen while my brother’s screams joined hers.
Fortunately, a friend came by to take my brother from her arms, extract me from the mud, and help all of us continue walking to the boat. Finally we reached water and waded in it for a while to clean the mud from our bodies, and then climbed into the small rowboats waiting to take us to the “big boat that would sail us to America.”
While we sat in these small shuttle boats, the wind picked up and I suddenly felt a cold chill and started shaking. My sister Thu put her arms around me and we hugged to keep each other warm. It was dark by the time we came upon the “big boat that would sail us to America,” and I was surprised to see so many little rowboats waiting to board the bigger boat. My mother started to freak out, saying, “There are too many people.”
The owner had promised that there would be less than half the number of people we now saw in the water, and he had taken substantial amounts of money for each passenger. But there was nothing else we could do at this point—either get aboard or go back.
The “big boat that would sail us to America” turns out to be a simple wooden boat with one main deck and an upper deck. We found a corner and sat down on the floor, my mother, four daughters, one son, two of a family friend’s children, and my aunt—all wet and huddled together. As more and more people boarded the boat, we were pushed closer and closer to each other, until all 200 or more passengers boarded a boat that was about six by seventeen meters. There were so many people that we only had enough floor space to sit back-to-back right next to each other, without being able to lie down. All our belongings were thrown off the boat, including all our valuables and any food that was not for the boat’s crew. Even without baggage and food stores, there was no space to lie down, or even to rest our backs to sleep. Yes, we had made it onto the “big boat that would sail us to America.” Phase Two was completed but left us terrified.
And so we set off into the night, eager to leave our homes and to reach a destination unknown to us all. The first night was calm, but tense, as we navigated Vietnamese waters to reach international waters beyond the reach of Vietnamese authorities. The following morning, we were awakened by triple bad news: (1) the compass was missing, (2) we would be out of fuel in three days or less, and (3) we had thrown away most of the food so what we had—just rice—was only enough for about two days. Our chances of survival had just become even slimmer. Gloom settled over the boat, and yet a stubborn hope remained; we all knew there was no turning back at this point.
The hot sun beat down on us as we forged forward. I explored my surroundings and began to get to know people on the boat. Despite our mutual unspoken fears, everyone was nice, all with the same gleaming, sustaining hope in their eyes. My favorite place was the upper deck, where there was a little more room to maneuver and an ironically symbolic but reassuring big white cross. The presence of a symbol of God’s love was reassuring but its display under these difficult and un-Christian circumstances was very ironic. My mother didn’t let me stay on the upper deck very long as it was not safe, and one could easily get thrown overboard into the water. That afternoon, there was an uproar. A child had fallen into the ocean as he was trying to go to the bathroom, which was off the back of the boat behind a wooden door. There were terrible cries from the child’s mother, who grieved against a silent backdrop as everyone just sat and huddled together. As a result of this incident, the silent fears of the other children palpably filled the air.
When evening came we began to hear the boat creak. There was talk of a leak in the wood hull, and people began to speculate that water would begin to come into the boat. Fear began to spread, and we hugged each other even closer. I slept very little that night, partly out of fear, but mostly because I was so uncomfortable from not being able to lie down. I nodded off a few times and dreamt of my comfortable bed at home. On our second morning, I went to the upper deck and found that it was a cloudy grey day. The boat was rocking wildly, and I was amazed to see walls of rippled steel – grey waves that were at least as high as ten-story buildings. One after another, the waves kept rolling all around and underneath our little boat, which appeared ever tinier as the waves lifted and pulled us up and down like a yo-yo. At any moment, our boat could have been folded into these enormous waves, and we would have disappeared without a trace. Frightened, I came back down to my mother and just buried my face into her protective chest and cried.
Our boat moved wherever the great waves took us. On the open sea without a compass, we had no idea where we were or where we were headed. Nighttime came, and an eerie quiet blanketed the entire boat. The people just sat in silence, eyes open, perhaps waiting for fate to decide our future. As predicted, on day three we ran out of food, and the boat had slowed and was sputtering, about to run out of fuel. The hope I had seen everywhere at the start of our journey was running out too, as all we could see around us was the endless sea, straight on to the horizon and beyond. My mother, the source of all our comfort and safety, looked desperate and helpless. She began to pray, and cried silently to herself.
The day dragged on and on. People who were friendly earlier became edgy and irritable as hunger sunk in. I too was running out of energy and didn’t feel like going around anymore; I just stayed with my mother or went to the upper deck to look at the waves. It seemed America was an awfully long way away, too far for any of us to reach from this tiny boat. I started daydreaming of the reunion with my brothers and sisters waiting for us in America, of eating delicious food, of swimming in the ocean alongside the boat, of angels flying above. In the evening, we began to feel violent rocking, signs of a storm coming our way. The storm lasted all night and into the morning.
When day broke on the fourth morning, the rain was still falling, and the sea continued its relentless rocking. This day we saw a big orange ship in the distance—hope for rescue. Women and children went to the upper deck. I waved my arms as fast as I could and called out for the people on the ship to come and help us. The ship stood in the same place for hours, and by noon, it had started to move away from us.
In that moment, all hope was lost. Chaos spread throughout the boat as people knew we were close to reaching the end. It seemed like all 200 people were making noise at the same time, either praying out loud to their gods, crying to one another, or saying their good-byes. My mother was also praying, saying she regretted that she had brought her children to their deaths.
Some time passed, and as the noise calmed down, a boy traveling with us pointed to the wall of the boat and cried out, “Look! I think the god of the sea is coming to rescue us!”
We all said he was hallucinating and paid no attention. Just as he repeated the same thing again, someone on the upper deck said, “The big orange ship is coming for us!” I ran up as fast as I could and saw the ship moving quickly in our direction, and heard cries of happiness all around me. Many people gathered around the big white cross on our boat, thanking the Lord Jesus Christ for saving us. I was so glad the big orange boat changed its mind and came to rescue us! When the ship came upon us, it looked like a giant city made of steel compared to our tiny wooden boat. Rope ladders dropped down and huge white men descended from the ship. They grabbed us children two at a time and climbed back up to put us on the massive steel deck. Up and down they went carrying people up to the boat. I was amazed at how big and strong they were, just like in the Western movies. There were other nice people on the ship handing out water and food to everyone.
The next few hours were the most amazing part of the journey. The storm picked up and rain came down hard. I stood on the deck of the ship looking down at our now tiny empty wooden boat getting tossed around from side to side, and after a while, the boat sank below the sea. I couldn’t believe it. We were saved by the grace of God and by the people on this big orange ship who turned around to rescue us when they knew we were not going to make it through the storm. We all stood frozen in silence, thankful to be alive. My mother said she felt as though she had died and come back to life again.
We must have smelled bad because we were all lined up and escorted into the bathrooms for long soapy showers. We were given food and places to sleep. The next few days were a blur. I walked around exploring the ship and learned that it was called “Brimminger,” an oil tanker from Norway. I made friends with the nice people onboard and was even given fifteen dollars by a nice man who said to keep it for when we would need to use it in America.
After three days on Brimminger, we anchored in Singapore, and were processed at the immigration camp where we stayed for three months while we waited for sponsorship papers from Lancaster, PA. We were fortunate to have been sponsored by a family who were members of a church in Lancaster. They had learned about us through Catholic Relief Services and decided they wanted to help reunite our family.
We finally arrived in America in December 1979. It was evening when the airplane landed in Lancaster. I looked outside the window and saw a frozen land blanketed with white snow. I was filled with anticipation to see my siblings’ home in America. When we walked out into the terminal, we saw our family and members of the church waving and smiling at us. It was an amazing sight after all that we went through to get there. My mother broke down and sobbed as she hugged and kissed each of her children. I was so happy to see my family that I ran to hug and kiss them. It felt as if we were whole again, and that we could now restart our lives in a land of endless possibilities. After a while, we noticed that we had forgotten the church people, and shook their hands and introduced ourselves to them. My mother thanked them for helping us, and we all went to my aunt’s home. We stayed there for a few weeks while looking for a home to rent that would accommodate all of us; it was difficult, but we found a four-bedroom row house on News Street.
Our first few years in America were not as easy as we had expected. In addition to restarting life in a completely new land, which is hard enough, my mother had to figure out how to do this with twelve young children. Moreover, my mother had very few domestic skills, since she was a career businesswoman, and in Vietnam had had maids and nannies to help her with family matters.
While we had help from the Church, my mother later told me she felt completely hopeless and desperate as she wondered how we would make it in America with the little means that we had (my older siblings worked, but initially we had to receive welfare assistance from the government). Then she received a call from a minister from the Vietnamese Church who said he had heard about our family and wanted to help. My mother jumped for joy to speak with someone in Vietnamese, and invited him to our home. The minister told her that he couldn’t sleep, thinking about our family’s trouble, and said he felt a spiritual need (perhaps even a message from God) to come and talk to us. He told us God loved us and would keep us safe if we relied on him. My mother immediately accepted Jesus Christ as her savior and from that point on we all began to regularly attend church and worship our God.
Since then, while we still experienced hardship during the first few years in America, we always made it through all the situations and difficulties that challenged us. Most of us ended up with college degrees and now have careers and children of our own. Years later, I was the first family member that went back to Vietnam, just weeks after I graduated from George Washington University. Flying over the ocean to reach Vietnam’s coastline was one of the most emotional moments of my life. All the memories of the boat and being rescued on the big orange ship came back like it had happened only yesterday. Tears just poured down my face and I couldn’t help but to pray to God, giving thanks for what God had done for me on that day fifteen years before.
My first opportunity to move back to Vietnam was in 2004, when I took a position as Chief Representative with The New York Life Insurance Company (where I still work). Another wonderful gift from God was that as if by a miracle, my New York Life office was located directly across the street from where my mother had operated her business in Central Saigon, and where I had spent many days as a child playing on the streets. It was like God wanted to remind me that I had been given a second chance—to begin where my mother left off, to restart a career and a new life for myself, and for her.
I give thanks to God every day for my family’s survival and for allowing me to live this miracle.