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caption: Eight-year-old Diem Pham holds her 1-year-old cousin Kim Pham at a refugee camp in Malaysia in May 1980.

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Eight-year-old Diem Pham holds her 1-year-old cousin Kim Pham at a refugee camp in Malaysia in May 1980.
Credit: Courtesy of Diem Pham

A poem for my mother, a Vietnam boat refugee

At just 8 years old, my mom, Diem Pham, became a refugee of the Vietnam War. Her parents put her on a small boat, where she spent 10 days at sea and six months at a refugee camp in Malaysia.

Decades later, I interviewed her about that experience, and wove her answers into a spoken-word poem.

Mama, can you tell me the story of your escape from Vietnam?

"It was shortly after the war."

It was 1980.

"And my parents, who are your grandparents, decided that they would go ahead and let me go first without them."

You were 8 years old.

"And we were in a small dark room."

Ba, your mother, was sewing gold in your shirt seams.

Ong, your father, was in shadows pushing freedom up by its shoulders.

"To give me a future is to take that risk and put me on that boat."

caption: Diem Pham and her mother, Mary Pham, in Vietnam in 1974.
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Diem Pham and her mother, Mary Pham, in Vietnam in 1974.
Credit: Courtesy of Diem Pham

So when the Communists started building concentration camps out of sandcastles,

You ran to ship / afloat in Saigon ashes

Sang Vượt Biên sea-songs in tropical storm

Tossed boat and identity into same belly.

Mama, how could you still love water after swallowing an ocean of trauma?

"I think when I was first on the boat, and in the storm, the cold water at night flooding through the boat was terrifying. But there was a moment during the boat trip that I was able to come up to the surface, and there I could see dolphins swimming. They say dolphins are lucky. "

So when currents pulled you far from home / refugee camp in Malaysia,

You learned to swim between fault lines of seawater and soul;

Became courageous girl gazing at the horizon.

"The sea is beautiful in that when I was at camp, I would look out at the sea and I knew that I wouldn't be stuck here forever. And it was hope, because I knew that on the other side of the sea was where my parents were, and that one day I would be able to see them again."

caption: Left: Diem Pham (left) with her mother, Mary Pham, at the beach in Vietnam in 1974. Right: Diem Pham (right) with her daughter, 4-year-old Sarah Pham, at a family wedding in 2006.
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Left: Diem Pham (left) with her mother, Mary Pham, at the beach in Vietnam in 1974. Right: Diem Pham (right) with her daughter, 4-year-old Sarah Pham, at a family wedding in 2006.
Credit: Courtesy of Diem Pham

Even when alone,

Sea cradled your hurt.

You — holding onto seaglass,

Your laughter brushed ashore,

Swimming into sunset,

You knew only this: love survives.

"Just as the sea has storms and huge waves, but if we're able to harness that energy and ride like the wave riders, the surf riders, we can come safely to shore and enjoy that ride."

So here, floating on salted waters, above shadows

In the places where freedom sails,

I find my mother.

Here, where sea meets shore,

Trauma and resilience converge.

All audio for this story was collected following CDC safety guidelines during Covid-19.

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Online Radio Journalism Workshop for 15- to 18-year-olds, with production support from Lila Shroff. Edited by Kelsey Kupferer.

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