When the U.S. armed forces evacuated South Vietnam in 1975, Luc Pham was surprised.
A South Vietnamese intelligence officer who worked for the U.S. Embassy, Pham never believed the United States would completely abandon his country.Like many others who had loyally served the government, Pham was arrested by the communists. Unlike many others, he was allowed to live. He spent more than three years in a prison camp before a harrowing escape through the jungle and over the ocean in a leaky boat with his family.
He now teaches English to foreign students at Washington Elementary School in Salt Lake City. Four years ago he was named teacher of the year in the Salt Lake School District.
Freedom is a concept the 43-year-old Pham understands completely. He wishes more Americans would ponder the plight of Southeast Asian refugees, commonly referred to as boat people.
"Many died without knowing anything about freedom," he said. "People here need to ask themselves why."
When Pham ran away from the prison camp, he headed straight for the village where his wife and six children lived. He then worked out a deal with a fisherman, who agreed to sail to a prearranged spot along the shore at the end of his day. There, the family boarded the boat and headed for the open seas.
Having survived imprisonment and the constant threat of death, Pham was facing the toughest challenge of courage in his quest for freedom - the ocean. He did not know how to swim and was terrified of the high seas.
"To go on a fishing boat across the ocean for me was unthinkable," he said. "It was a small old boat. If we were caught, I knew I would spend the rest of my life in jail."
Pham also knew boat people face incredible odds. "When you escape from a country, you are the property of no one," he said. "People can take everything from you. No one will protect you."
Luckily, Pham and his family were intercepted by a friendly Thai fishing boat, which towed them to the Malaysian coast. After six months in a refugee camp, U.S. officials sent the family to Utah.
"I want you to ask yourself - you can see that I`m not crazy - `Why did he do what he did?' " he asks. "Why would a human being have to sacrifice himself for something? I don't even understand why, why I had that much courage to go in the ocean or to go through the jungle. I don't think I would have the guts to do what I did again."
Pham enjoys living in Utah, although he wishes more Americans would understand that he now is one of them.
"They don't realize that if there was a war tomorrow I would fight with them on their side," he said. "People think we're a threat because of the Japanese or because they think refugees are taking jobs. I am an American."
Willing to fight
Family name: Pham
Native Land: South Vietnam.
Years in the United States: 10.
Father's former occupation: Intellignece officer, South Vietnamese military.
Current job: Elementary school teacher.
Reasons for fleeing homeland: Was a political prisoner. Escaped.
Biggest frustration in America: Some Americans resent refugee or equate them with Japanese whom they perceive as a threat to the country. "We (refugess) think this is paradise. If we have to fight to defend it tomorrow, we will fight very hard."