Sunday, June 9, 2013

Don Ly

Don Ly came to America from South Vietnam in June 1990. He received his American citizenship through naturalization over 16 years ago, on October 31, 1996. On every Election Day, he always tried to get home from work early to cast his vote before the polls closed. He was an ardent believer in all the goodness that is America. He believed in America. He was always full of hope for better days ahead for his family in America. He was grateful and humble for all he had in life. For all he ever had in life, he achieved them from honest hard work. From very poor beginnings in a small unknown village in Xung Thum, Vietnam to owning a small family business in Philadelphia for 18 years, he was always a good honest man, and he never once betrayed himself from the path of goodness.

Don Ly was born in Xung Thum (pronounce Chhoung Thom) on June 15, 1944, in a small isolated rural village between the two bigger towns of Bac Lieu and Vinh Chau, in the Soc Trang province of South Vietnam. He was the oldest of five children in his family. He grew up about a mile away from the Xung Thum Temple, which was always the center of village life. He was born to a very humbled mother and father, who were much loved by all in Xung Thum for their gentleness. His father passed away in 2008 at age 90 in Xung Thum. His mother passed away not long after in 2011 at age 86 in Xung Thum.

At an early age, Don Ly was educated in a school in Xung Thum in Vietnamese. Xung Thum school is located within the premise of Xung Thum Temple but administered by the Vietnamese government. Young people of Xung Thum learn Vietnamese early in the day and learn to read and write Cambodian or Khmer language in the evening taught by Buddhist monks from the temple. Thus, people in Xung Thum are educated in both Vietnamese and Cambodian language. Cambodian is the primary spoken language in Xung Thum. With education, people in Xung Thum can be fluent in both Cambodian and Vietnamese. With not much education, people in Xung Thum can only speak Cambodian primarily, and some Vietnamese. Cambodian speaking people in South Vietnam are identified as Khmer Krom. In South Vietnam, there are several millions Khmer Krom people. Perhaps more than a million of them are currently residing in America. They are a nation of people with no country of their own. The ruling Vietnamese think of them as Cambodian people. Cambodians from Cambodia thinks of them as Vietnamese. But they have always been natives living in South Vietnam.

Don Ly achieved the highest level of education available for a young person in Xung Thum. He then enrolled in Xung Thum Temple as a Buddhist monk in a traditional rite of passage for a young man in a Buddhist culture. Like most Buddhist Temples in Southeast Asia, Xung Thum Temple follows the traditions of Theravada Buddhism. Don Ly was a Buddhist monk in this fashion for about 7 years from when he was approximately 17 years old to 24 years old. During these years, as a Buddhist monk, he travelled and studied at different temples in the region for a certain period of time in each temple. He also had some medical training in Bac Lieu during these years. This was a time when Don Ly was first known in Xung Thum as an exceptional pupil. He excelled in learning the teaching of Buddhism. As a senior monk in Xung Thum Temple, Don Ly taught younger monks in Khmer language and Buddhism. He was a well-respected mentor of many younger monks.

From very humble beginnings, Don Ly found Buddhism to be very enlightening. He believed in it and lived by its teaching all his life, and he never betrays himself in the righteous path of Buddhism. He was always true to himself. Thus, his peers from a very young age, many of whom are currently living in America, loved and respected him greatly and can attest to the goodness of his character since childhood.

Don Ly graduated from Buddhist monkhood in 1970. From his education as a Buddhist monk, he obtained the highest diplomas available, which is Threy (1st degree), Tho (2nd degree), and Eak (3rd and last degree, comparable to a western philosophy degree). Perhaps, a higher level of attainment after Eak degree is when a monk chooses to remain as a monk and will eventually become one of the senior ministers of the temple, or even an abbot of the temple. He was fluent in Vietnamese and Cambodian by then.

Shortly after monkhood, he became a communication liaison police officer working only in an office in Bac Lieu due to his higher level of education and fluency in Vietnamese and Cambodian language. From his job training, he also obtained a diploma to qualify for a typing job in the office. During these years before 1975, South Vietnam was under the protectorate of America, but their presence was minimal in Bac Lieu because it was a small town close to the southernmost tip of Vietnam where conflict were minimal before 1975. Don Ly was working there up to the communist Viet Cong invasion from North Vietnam on April 30, 1975.

Don Ly married his one and only true love in 1971. His wife, Saruong, is the second oldest child of eight children, whose family is influential and extensive throughout Xung Thum, and whose residency territory is adjacent to Xung Thum Temple. He had his first daughter in 1972. He had his first son in 1974.

Approximately on April 10, 1975, 20 days before the communist Viet Cong invasion from North Vietnam, on his way back from work, he stepped on a mine and lost two toes on his left foot. Ever since then, he walked with an unbalanced step that is noticeable if you took the time to watch him walk. He was at a hospital in Bac Lieu for his injury when the Viet Cong invaded South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. It was a very chaotic time and he was lucky to come home to be with his new-born son. After his injury, he became a farmer on a plot of land that was part of territory belonging to his wife’s family.

Through his hard work, he earned enough to buy a small longan plantation about three miles away along the coast. Longan was the most lucrative fruit product at the time. He bought two more longan plantations later adjacent to the first on both sides. He was expanding his fruit business as he was able to. On the plot of land where his family lived, beside flowers and vegetables like chili peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, watermelon, and corn, he planted a variety of trees, including mango, sugar-custard apple, rose apple, jack fruit, guava, guanabana, papaya, banana, and Asian plum. His children have the happiest memories running on these fruit trees ground as children.

But occasionally, the communist Viet Cong came to take him and many other men in for questioning if they ever done anything against the efforts of the Viet Cong up to that point. Many were taken, unjustly tortured, and never returned. His mother burned all documents in fear that he was ever a police officer after the Viet Cong took over South Vietnam in 1975. But Don Ly was able to preserve a small photo in a police cadet uniform that still remains with his family. His father-in-law, who is the patriarch of the family and as a large land owner in Xung Thum, was always a target for the Viet Cong. When the Viet Cong were spotted coming into his territory, Don Ly and him went into hiding in the woods whenever possible. Such was life in Xung Thum, Vietnam after 1975.

Don Ly had his second daughter in 1976 and his second son in 1979. His first two children born before 1975 had birth certificates from the Viet Ming-South Vietnamese government. His last two children born after 1975 did not have any form of birth certificate, because he did not care to register them for the communist Viet Cong government. It was not even necessary for life in such rural village where they lived. Xung Thum was a small village isolated from the rest of the world. The isolation was more pronounced after 1975. His wife often recounted to her children that when she was younger, she had an abundance of material wealth like radio, toys, soda and candy. Her father was a very wealthy landowner in Xung Thum and there was no scarcity of goodies for her as a child. Unfortunately, she felt sorry for her children growing up in a poorer time in Vietnam after 1975. There were no western made products, only an abundance of fruits from their family farm.

For future well-being with freedom and liberty, Don Ly attempted to escape from poverty and communist Vietnam in 1987 but failed. He attempted to bring only his first two children with him to a refugee camp somewhere and left his wife and last two children behind because they were too young to travel. He planned to come back for the rest of his family when the time was more opportune. He did not get far when he found out there was some greater conflict involving Vietnam and Cambodia at the time. He could not risk it and came back home. Finally, in January 1989, according to his plan, he escaped. He took his entire family out of Xung Thum surreptitiously one quiet morning before dawn by river boat. By late morning his family was on their way to Bac Lieu. Then they travelled by buses and boats, whatever they could find, to get to the border of Vietnam at Chau Doc and cross over to Cambodia. By late night, they arrived at some place in Chau Doc; they slept over night at some public place like homeless people, it was probably a bus station. In the misty morning, they got on a small boat and crossed over to Cambodia.

At the border crossing checkpoint to Cambodia, he told the Cambodian officials that he was visiting some relatives in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It was no problem as his entire family is fluent in speaking Cambodian. Though all of his children did not live in Xung Thum long enough to learn reading and writing Cambodian well, it is their primary language spoken together at home. After crossing over to Cambodia territory, they went on their way with mostly rented motorcycle called motodups. They were in a foreign land for the first time and on unfamiliar territory. They went mostly by motodups because the drivers could carry only his family members to their destination. The journey by motodups to Phnom Penh by way of Takeo and Ta Khmao was arduous due to the dusty and badly neglected roads and bridges. They probably arrived at Phnom Penh by late night and slept at some public places like homeless people again. Don Ly wasted no time on the next morning to seek out his relatives in Phnom Penh. Like he told the official at the border crossing, he did have some distant relatives in Phnom Penh from his wife’s side of the family, whose family network is more extensive than his own. After he found them, he stayed with them for about a week. Cambodia in 1989 was not safe and so his family had to stay hidden inside most of the time.

Meanwhile, he had to plan the next step to get his family to a refugee camp somewhere beyond. He found out that he could travel by boat to get to the refugee camps in the Philippines islands, or travel on land to get to the refugee camps on the border of Thailand, where they processed immigrants for resettlement in a safer foreign country. When he had to decide which refugee camp to get to, he decided at the worst, he preferred his family to die on land and not die at sea. It was all dangerous routes either way with no certainty of survival. To move forward, he hired three guides to lead the way to find the refugee camps in Thailand. They left Phnom Penh for Battambang province on the second week of January 1989. They traveled mostly in the quiet of night when people were hiding inside their home. From Phnom Penh to Battambang, they traveled with whatever mode of transportation they could find: taxis, train, buses, motodups, and boat. They stayed in Battambang for several days with people the guides had networking connections with. Like in Phnom Penh, they had to stay hidden inside most of the time.

From Battambang, they traveled to the next town of Svay Sisophon. The next Cambodian town closest to Thailand from Sisophon is Poipet, where people could officially cross over to Thailand through Aranyaprachet border checkpoint. But they could not cross to Thailand officially as immigrants seeking asylum. The Thai government would not process them as refugees seeking asylum. On the contrary, the Thai government might transport them back to Vietnam through some official diplomatic means where they will surely face refoulement. Still under Vietnamese ruled in January 1989, Cambodian officials at the time would not allow them to cross over to Thailand as refugee seeking asylum to begin with. If they were caught and transported back to Vietnam, they will be jailed and tortured for trying to leave the country illegally. Communist Vietnam at the time had no good relation with the free world. People in Vietnam then could not just buy plane ticket to some foreign country even if they could afford it. Those seeking freedom and liberty in some foreign country had to risk their life when they attempted to escape from their homeland and had to be willing to endure all kinds of difficulties along the way.

Don Ly and the guides could not risk crossing to Thailand through Poipet – Aranyaprachet border checkpoint. Thus, his family had to make the most arduous journey to the edge of Cambodia in some unknown village north of Sisophon and Poipet. From then on, there was no beaten path. It was no man’s land. It was the jungle. The way forward was laid with booby traps, mine fields, and jungle guerrilla outlaws known as para for paramilitary; not to mention fierce carnivorous animals, but especially insects like mosquitoes and the rough terrains. They were most definitely not prepared but had to endure all the pains for the survival of the family. Back in Xung Thum, as in many rural places in Southeast Asia, people travelled on bare foot on unpaved earth. On special occasions, like holidays, the wealthier people would wear factory made rubber flip flops. It is always hot, and no one in their right mind wore sock, shoes, sneakers or boots. Footwear was typically non-existent to begin with for every day rural village life. As such, they travelled through the jungle’s rough terrains with flip flops and bare feet. The pains were most excruciating, they cried in quiet whimper on short rest.

Most likely on the fourth week of January 1989, they began their journey through some point vaguely remembered as Phreiy-Kon-Threy (little fish forest), where many people was known to be lost and never heard from again. Always they had to brave the unknown surreptitiously at night, or risk being captured by all kind of dangerous outlaws in bright day light. Thus, they rested in some well hidden spot in the day and travelled only at night, always enduring hunger and thirst. They crossed unknown rivers and climbed mountains ill-equipped and defenseless in the dark of night. When they came to a river too wide or too deep to cross, they had to walk toward the source until narrow enough to cross. When they came to a mountain in the jungle, they climbed it without a choice in the dark. The main mountain they traversed is known as the Ta Phraya Mountain of the Donrek Mountains range that separates northwest Cambodia from Thailand.

During much of the 1980s, countless people emigrated through that jungle from Cambodia to find refugee camps in Thailand. Many got lost in the darkness of the jungle and separated from their family, and countless people died along the way. But Don Ly and his family survived it all together. In about two weeks of darkness, they found their way to a refugee camp on the border of Thailand known as Site II (Site Two, Site 2) in northeastern part of Ta Phraya District, Thailand. They stayed at the minicamp known as the U-camp within Site II. The U-camp was a single complex shelter camp built in the shape of the letter U about two city blocks in length. It was mostly used for newly arrived refugees to Site II camp. New arrival refugees to Site II were told to stay at the U-camp until the official could process them as refugee seeking asylum. The authority could then offer them relocation assistance elsewhere within Site II. Beside the United Nations (UNBRO) and other NGOs, one of the main figures responsible for the safety and well-being of refugees in Site II camp was a Khmer Krom man named Son Sann (Oct. 5, 1911 – Dec. 19, 2000).

From leaving Xung Thum in the beginning of January 1989, they arrived at Site II camp during the second week of February 1989. Don Ly's family stayed in the U-camp for about a month without being officially process as refugees seeking asylum. The camp was still close to the jungle and was prone to attack by those dreaded para outlaws. People slept with their bundle of belongings as pillows, for if there were any attack, they could just take it and run. It was always perilous living close to the border in conflicts.

The guides had done their job by leading his family to one of the refugee camps without much harm. They parted ways with Don Ly right after their arrival to Site II camp. From then on, Don Ly was on his own again. While in the U-camp, he gathered some information about a camp farther away from the border of Thailand. But the authorities overseeing each camp forbade refugees to move from camp to camp on their own. Don Ly had to risk it and boldly took the next step forward to the next camp called Banthad. It was a camp built mostly for Vietnamese immigrants located adjacent to the west side of Site II camp. They went to the authorities in Banthad camp to officially register as refugees seeking asylum. They were given an available spot of land in Banthad to build a home and they stayed there for about four months. By around June – July 1989, the authorities moved them, among thousands of other families, to a much safer camp farther to the interior of Thailand, called Phanat Nikkhom, in Chonburi province. Phanat Nikkhom was their final refugee camp. They stayed there for almost a year from mid-1989 to mid-1990.

Refugee camps in Thailand were overseen partly by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The authority in Phanat Nikkhom processed and interviewed people fleeing from various places for resettlement in foreign country. In 1989, there were nearly two hundred thousand refugees in Site II camp. There were several tens of thousands more in Banthad camp, and there were perhaps over two hundred thousand people in Phanat Nikkhom camp. Countless people had arrived in each refugee camps long before and after Don Ly. They were only fleeing their war-torn home and had no plan to go anywhere. They all wished to be resettled in a safer and richer foreign country. Unfortunately, many people fleeing their homeland had no proper form of identification or they failed the UNHCR examinations. They were not granted any resettlement in foreign land and were left behind in their respective camp until they were sent back to their homeland as repatriation beginning in 1992.

Refugees in Phanat Nikkhom camp with no proper identification had to go through all four tough interview examination processes. Don Ly family went through only the first two interviews and passed, because he had adequate proof of identification. He brought with him his photo ID from 1970 since he was a monk in Xung Thum. He brought his small photo in a police cadet uniform. He brought his wife’s ID from 1971 as a resident in Xung Thum. He had his first two children birth certificates before 1975, among other authentic documents. Many people’s first choice of destination for resettlement was the United States of America. Don Ly had the choice to choose any country he wanted for resettlement and he chose the U.S.A. with no hesitation. When his family received news that they passed the interview examination after only two stages, they were most joyous at that difficult time living in refugee camps. They only had to be transported to America when the UNHCR completed all the arrangements. Meanwhile, they were taught basic English in Phanat Nikkhom for the purpose of resettlement in America by The Consortium School: Save The Children Federation, The Experiment in International Living and World Education.

Don Ly’s perilous immigration journey lasted for about one and a half years from January 1989 to June 1990, very short and very fortunate compared to many others family’s ordeal. His family among thousands was transported to America in June 1990. It was the first time they flew on an airplane and all got air sick terribly. But it was just another hellish journey through unfamiliar path. This one was worse for they now must communicate in English. They were educated in basic English in Phanat Nikkhom camp for the purpose of resettlement in the U.S.A. They had an easier time learning it because of their Vietnamese background, whose written language were romanicized (converted to Latin based alphabet) centuries ago. But nothing could prepare them for America. It was like aliens from another planet with very different civilizations. Language barriers notwithstanding, they were most perplexed with America’s strange multi-racial society with people having various skin colors and eyes colors. It was a time of cultural shock which took some times to overcome.

Don Ly’s family was first resettled in Manchester, New Hampshire. But he soon found out some more friends from refugee camps that were assigned resettlement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and that Philadelphia had more opportunities for immigrants. For this purpose, he moved to South Philadelphia around October 1990. He enrolled his children in Philadelphia schools right away. The three first born children were enrolled in Furness High School. All graduated with National Honor Society and continued studying at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), before transferring to Drexel University. The youngest child was enrolled in Southwark Middle School, then Bodine High School and then Drexel University. They all graduated from university. Don Ly and his wife had to work in various jobs, night and day, doing whatever they could find. The three first born children also had to work on weekends to help the family.

Through honest hard work, they saved up to move to a better neighborhood in South Philadelphia four times. Through some family and friends connections, Don Ly was able to find his final work. In May 1995, he was able to purchase a food cart selling fruit salad at the corner of 34th Street and Walnut Street, on the University of Pennsylvania campus. This family business put four children through college.

Through this family business, Don Ly made connections with many other families running similar food carts business in Philadelphia. Through the years in America, he made many friends. He established connections with extended family and friends from Xung Thum and the surrounding area from South Vietnam living in America. He kept in touch with people he met from Thailand refugee camps now residing in various states in America and they all can attest to the goodness of his character.

Don Ly worked very hard all his life and was grateful for the work he had to support his family. His daily activities for the last 18 years consist of working as a fruit vendor. He had to get up very early around 4 am to purchase fresh fruits at the Regional Produce Market (the food distribution center around the sport complex) in South Philly. He was very tired by the end of work day normally at 6 or 7pm. But he still had to unload all the heavy inventories when he came back home. He ate and then prepared the inventories for the next day. He still found some time to watch the weather report because he worked outside and had to face nature elements whether in the rain, in the snow, or in the summer heat. On weekends, he drove around early in the day with his wife to purchase more supplies for the week. Then he had more time for the rest of the day to be with his family. His family normally cooks their own food and frequently invited close friends to come over and enjoy the food together. Then they watched TV together and talked about their businesses and joked about things joyously.

On September 1997, his family moved to a better neighborhood, where they currently live. They live there peacefully, until their lives were shattered one unsuspecting morning on Thursday, April 18, 2013. In an instant, some evil person emerged from the darkness silently and killed Don Ly savagely for no known reason in front of his home as he was about to complete loading up his fruits for sale for the day. There is no conceivable reason for anyone to kill him at all. He was a very kind man who made an honest living and never had any animosity with anyone whatsoever. He was not in debt of any kind to anyone and he was in good health up to his last breath. He was completely innocent and guiltless. The same is true for all people in his family. For someone to kill him that way is completely unconscionable and unnatural.

People who knew him were shocked beyond belief. They remember him for being a kind and gentle man, and they came from all over to pay respect on that very first day of his undeserving and untimely death. Strangers, who have not known him before, were utterly shocked at the brutality he suffered as an elderly person. They sent donations as condolences to his family to show their support. Their donations for his family meant more than money. In difficult time like this, their caring compassionate heart is a shining example of all that is good and pure with humanity. Their combined commiseration for Don Ly stands as a united force in the community against evil and injustice. When a man can make many people in the community feel compassionate and grief for him, then an injustice committed on him became an injustice on the whole community itself.

On every Election Day, Don Ly came home early from work to cast his vote at the school across the street before the poll closed because he believed in America. He was contented of his accomplishments thus far in America when he often thought about how some people born here in America, speaking natural English, but is out there begging on the street. Perhaps they don’t have the love he had at home. They don’t have the respect among friends and people in the community as he had. He was only an immigrant, he did not speak English so fluently, but he never had to beg in America. He was willing to work hard to provide a good home for his family. Thus, he was always humbled and grateful for a better life in America.

Don Ly was only a man. He may not be perfect. But he was truly absent of evil all his life. He was always utmost honest, humble, gentle and kind to all people. Don Ly was a deeply loving devoted husband who married only once and for life. He was a deeply loving devoted father who was always kind and patient with his children. He was an exemplary peaceful family man. He was a good man in every sense of the word. His family was full of joy every day up to his last moment on earth. Don Ly and his family was one and inseparable. They had always been together through so much hardship. Their hearts are utterly broken and their grief is immensely immeasurable in that he is now separated from them forever. His family and friends near and far love and miss him dearly. The world has truly lost a very good man.

Police Video:

ABC6 News video:

NBC10 News Video:


Refugee camp map:

Border camp:

Site 2 camp:

What Site II and the U-camp look like:


Dongrek Mountain range:

Dongrek Mountain range:

Cambodia physical map:


Border map:

Documentation on refugee camp (2nd half of the video):