I met my friend Jessica through a Women’s Bible Study. She is a beautiful and warm woman whose smile is commanding and spirit welcoming. As I learned more about this precious girl, I was inspired by her story. It is a story that was written by the Sovereign hand of our Divine Father God, and His fingerprints are recognized all throughout. I invite you into this story. I am certain your heart will be moved, if not changed as you read.
XUAN means spring in Vietnamese. This is the name of Jessica’s mother. Xuan and Jessica’s father, Binh, were both born in Vietnam. Their families were dear friends, which eventually lead to a semi-arranged marriage for Xuan and Binh. Together, Xuan and Binh had 7 children, of which Jessica is the youngest. Her parents are devout Christians, and have instilled deep faith into their children. The children: Peter, Canh, Minh, Matthew, Chuong, David, and Jessica along with their parents, were living in Vietnam during an intense time of war and political unrest. It was the late 60’s, early 70’s and North Vietnam was rising up against South Vietnam. The United States had been on the ground with troops. You and I would recognize this time period as the Vietnam War.
During this time, Binh, Jessica’s dad, was working for the Vietnamese government in the area of intelligence. Binh was directly connected with the U.S. through his role in the intelligence department.
January 27, 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were held and a peace treaty signed that ceased direct U.S. military involvement with Vietnam in the conflict. The fighting between North and South Vietnam stopped temporarily, but time passed and peace right along with it. North Vietnam ignited the battle once again. Pressing toward their goal to take over South Vietnam; bringing the entire country under the communist regime.
Amid those days of unrest, Binh found himself away on an intelligence assignment. One night while Binh slept far from his family, he dreamt that the central city of Qui Nhoun, where Jessica, her mother, and siblings were living had fallen to the North. This dream was powerful enough that Binh sent word to have the family, along with Aunts and Uncles, moved to a more southern city, Cam Ranh Bay. When Binh’s assignment was complete, it took him several months to find his family in Cam Ranh Bay. Once Binh was reunited with his family, he made the decision to move them further south to the capital city of Saigon. Due to the fact that the Northern regime continued their advancement into South Vietnam, Binh felt more secure being in the capital with his family. In order to travel to Saigon, the family would need to travel by ship so Binh booked the passages. Soon, the day of departure arrived. Xuan along with the 4 younger children boarded the first ferry out to the ship that would carry them further south to safety. As Binh and the 3 older children began to board the next ferry across, they came under fire by the communist regime. They were unable to make it to the ship, unable to make passage with the rest of the family to Saigon.
As the days passed in Saigon, Xuan desperately sought for any information about her husband and children, but everything was in complete chaos.
April 30th, 1975 a day unlike any Vietnam had ever seen. It would go down in history as The Fall of Saigon. This time was nothing short of panicked and chaotic. Binh, because of his role in the intelligence program working with the U.S., had special clearance to evacuate his family safely. Binh had made it to Saigon with the older 4 children, yet had not located Xuan and the younger 3 children. He was resolute and would not leave Vietnam without his whole family. After several months, at last Binh was reunited with his bride and children and took them all back to Cam Rahn Bay.
Soon after the arrival in Cam Rahn Bay, the communists communicated that everyone should return to their hometowns, all being forgiven, including if you had worked for the non-communist side. With that announcement, Binh packed up his family and they returned to their hometown of Qui Nhon. Upon their return to Qui Nhon, Binh was immediately captured and taken deep into the jungle to a “reeducation camp”.
The Communist government had moved in and completely taken over.
All had been lost for Jessica’s family. Xuan now found herself with 7 children, no home, no money; stranded. Xuan’s mother was with them as well, so able to offer some support so she could find some work.
As Xuan struggled to make a living, her deep faith continued to guide her, she never waivered or questioned the circumstance they were in, she simply trusted God would provide for all their needs. God did provide, and He used the church as part of that provision. The church played a key role in caring for the needs Xuan and her children had during those years. Yes, it was not weeks, or months, but years that passed for Xuan and her children. Binh was in the “Reeducation Camp” for 6 years. Xuan was allowed a visit 1 time each year. The family did not have much hope for Binh’s release. Many ended up dying in the camps because the torture was so severe.
Xuan would travel, making and selling items to people. She even farmed. Sustaining her family was her greatest concern, and she did whatever it took. In her sales travels, Xuan would meet fisherman who owned boats, and had helped people plan escapes. Vietnamese people were risking their lives to seek liberation, and escaping to the Philippines. Upon arrival to the Philippines, refugees could be processed to enter the U.S. Xuan began to plan an escape for her own family, feeling it was her only hope to give them a better life. A route carrying them through the South China Sea began to come together. This would be safer and less monitored route than most. A full year of careful planning took place.
Xuan explained to her children that they would be leaving shortly but not to tell anyone or they would all be thrown into prison. As plans continued to fall into place, something unexpected happened, Binh returned home. Jessica, 7-years-old at the time, had not seen her father in 6 years. When she arrived home from school the day of his return, her mother had to explain to her that the unrecognizable man sitting at their kitchen table was her father. Binh would now be a part of the planning committee for the escape to the Philippines and by God’s grace, be leaving with them.
The whole family would depart from Vietnam except for the oldest son, Peter, who was in seminary at the time.
At 8 years old, in June 1982 Jessica and her family set out on a journey of hope for a better future. The escape was planned for a night of a bright moon. They would need the moonlight to guide them up over a mountain, where a boat would be waiting on the other side. Once again, the family would leave everything behind, even the beloved family dog, Sony. All they took were the clothes on their back.
That evening, by the light of a God blessed moon, 27 boarded the boat bound for freedom. Among the group was the oldest daughter, Canh and her husband. Canh was 6 months pregnant with their first child. The journey was expected to take a week.
Just a few short days into the trip, the propeller fell off the boat causing it to stall. A quick decision was made to hoist the sails in effort to start sailing. At this point they were still within the Vietnam boundary of sea and more distressing than that they were without wind. Minh, the oldest boy on the boat dove into the waters with another young man to attempt replacing the propeller. As they dove into the water with equipment in hand, wind suddenly picked up, turning the boat completely around.
Unbeknownst to them…
Many years later Peter shared this part of the story with the family:
Peter, back in Vietnam in seminary, was aware of his families’ planned escape. He was tuned in on the radio and overheard that a patrol boat was in pursuit of a vessel of passengers escaping from South Vietnam. It was reported over the airwaves that as the patrol boat approached the vessel, it quickly turned toward them, and 2 men dove out of the vessel with what appeared to be bombs and were heading to attack the patrol boat. At which point the patrol boat turned back to Vietnam.
This would be another fingerprint left by Sovereign Father God.
Now 10 days into the journey, with propeller fixed and moving closer to freedom, the food supply ran out. If you recall, the journey had been estimated to take a week. Supplies had been planned accordingly, but some of the food containers had become cross-contaminated with the fuel on board wiping out anything extra. With the food supply completely depleted yet another crisis came upon them, the engine died. At that point, with no engine, food, or water they had one last hope and set sail. Set sail they did. The boat was a drift and it’s passengers without food or water for 7 days.
As Jessica poignantly described these days on the boat, and recalled being overcome with hunger and thirst to the extent that they thought they would all perish at sea. Crawling around on the boat and finding some dry noodles, Jessica said she offered them to her mom, but she told Jessica to eat it. Jessica expressed that once again her mom, Xuan, was just being who she was, humble, serving, and looking to the interest of another before her own.
As always, even in the darkest of days, Xuan relied on God, and found her faith increased when she had a vision of the Virgin Mary. It was through that vision that God gave her reassurance that they would make it to safety. That vision gave her strength to hold on.
THEN… It rained!!! They collected the water that God had sent. They were beyond desperate for it! Through tears Jessica softly spoke, “We needed that rain.” I could hear her heart saying it was a life rescuing rain.
Shortly after the rain, fishing boats were spotted on the horizon; they assumed they were near the Philippines at this point. Raising the white flag to indicate their intent to the fisherman, the boats came out to them and pulled them to the shore. They had landed on the island of San Fernando where great crowds of people welcomed them to the island. Due to their fatigued physical state, they were all carried off the boat and taken to the hospital.
Jessica and her brother were taken to the pediatric hospital; separated from the rest of the family. Neither of them knew any English so they communicated through hand gestures and facial expressions. Even though Jessica felt like she was in a thick fog, she recalls that the nurses were incredibly gracious and kind as they cared for them.
A week passed, then she and her brother were united with their parents. God provided a Vietnamese woman who had married a man in the Philippines to interpret for them. A much needed blessing from God’s hand. This helped to bring clarity and calm to hearts that were still a bit unsettled. It wasn’t as if they had done this “escaping” and “refugeeing” thing before, or spoken with anyone who had.
Next would be a transfer to Manila, capital of the Philippines, where they stayed for a year learning English and awaiting sponsorship to the U.S. Jessica’s sister, Canh gave birth to a healthy baby boy which; they rejoiced over God’s protective hand in his development which had taken place under much duress.
About that same time, God moved in the heart of a woman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She felt compelled to sponsor a family to the U.S. from Vietnam. Recruiting 2 more of her friends from other churches to join her in that effort; they raised the necessary funds to bring Jessica’s family to Cedar Rapids.
In August 1983, they arrived in Cedar Rapids Iowa, with their parkas on! They had been told it would be bitterly cold, so they had all been given parkas to wear. Jessica said that it was 90 degrees that hot August day in Iowa!
A house had been rented for them. It was close quarters for all of them, but it was safe and even more importantly, they were living in freedom! All of the children started school, Xuan and Binh were assisted in finding employment. Binh worked at the school/ church, and Xuan began housekeeping.
All throughout Jessica’s life her parents stressed faith and education. The focus was always on God. What was most impactful for Jessica, was seeing how her mother depended on God to be everything, even when her circumstances left her with nothing. Her parents believed that there were 3 things that they would always have: their children, the church, and God.
Jessica described her mother as a woman who lived selflessly, not out of choice, but by character. A woman who never questioned, or waivered in her faith, and also never complained about rising up to meet a need. She described her as someone who simply responded with service and humility without a thought, it is just who she is; a humble servant, denying herself and taking up the burden of others.
When I initially asked Jessica about sharing her amazing story, explaining my view of her as a woman who exemplified strength and dignity, she was adamant that it is her mother, Xuan that is the woman of strength and dignity.
I chose them BOTH as woman of Strength and Dignity!