On the peaceful night of Jan 3, 1980, while the rest of the world was sound asleep, a refugee family of seven from Vietnam was about to start their new life in a place they never heard of: Onamia in Minnesota.
They were nervous, their hearts were pounding faster than the beat of a heavy metal rock band of the early 80s. The cold temperature outside was approaching the single digits, but the warmth inside the airport gave them no awareness of the drastic change they were about to face.
My father, a Chinese immigrant who was unable to speak Vietnamese in Vietnam for many years, suddenly became mute and deaf again in this frozen land. I, on the other hand, was a frightful teenager. I was the firstborn of five and designated to become the family’s mouth and ears.
My two giant dictionaries of Chinese/English, Vietnamese/English, along with two months of English studies at the refugee camp were the biggest asset I carried with me. Nevertheless, as my family and I saw a man and three women approach us at the receiving line off the plane, my tongue was frozen- not from the cold, but from fear.
However, I soon discovered the people's kindness did not need words. A simple smile, a kind gesture, was all it took.
Pastor Tim Rauk, his wife Nancy, and two other women parishioners from Bethany Lutheran Church made us feel warm and welcomed with their first glance. They were the representations of the Onamia community. From the moment we met, they took us under their wings and wrapped us with their warm hearts. They were so affectionate and caring.
Three churches in Onamia had sponsored us and nurtured our fragile souls. They helped us experience the opposite of cruelty, freed us from the communist's oppression, and erased our memories of the brutal pirates we faced at sea. They showed us that human love is possible, even between total strangers. Trust was reestablished.
For the next six months, they restored our faith, providing us with the strength to stand strong and to rebuild our lives from scratch.
"People will forget what you say, but they never forget how you make them feel!" - Maya Angelo. We will never forget how they made us feel. Their kindness gave us the energy to move forward to the next phase in Philadelphia.
Since then, my parents have overcome a tremendous amount of hard work. They persevered through challenge after challenge for us, expanding our opportunity for higher education, building our own families, and advancing our careers.
Although the combination of both my parents' education did not amount to an eighth-grader, they taught us always to be kind to strangers and never forget the people who were kind to us.
And now, forty-one years later, my mom, my siblings, and I are so fortunate to be able to revisit our second birthplace, aka Onamia. We are humbled to represent my dad, who passed away thirty-four years ago, to honor and pay tribute to the community who nourished our minds and nurtured our tender hearts at the time we needed it most.
Our book dedication to the Onamia Depot Library on Saturday, July 31 is a small act of reminder that kindness matters to the people who benefited from it. They never forget, even when they don’t talk much about it.
The kindness I learned from the people in Onamia inspired me to give back, to help make an impact, and want to leave footprints behind as they have done for my family.
To acknowledge the kindness of random strangers in my memoir was a dream come true. And now, to be able to raise funds to help other refugees who are still trapped in limbo is a blessing. To pay it forward, 50% of the proceeds from my book sale in July will be donated to the Refugee Film School in Malaysia.
Early into the pandemic, I found myself advocating for a group of teenage refugees in Malaysia who unexpectedly became their families' mouths and ears for survival in a foreign land. COVID-19 has become increasingly difficult for them as the lockdown and the Delta variant virus continue to spread.
The people in Onamia taught me that kindness is free. It does not cost anything to share, especially to the people who are less fortunate than us.
Gratitude is truly going in a full circle. Thank you for helping me continue to create more ripples of kindness.
Please check out their website www.Refugeefilmschool.com and pledge a donation if you would like to support their mission without buying my book.