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A Young Boy's Escape to America

Jim Diep escaped from Vietnam when he was 11 years old. One of his brothers gave him this guidance: “If they ask you where you want to go, tell them America.”


From Townhall Magazine's April feature, "Escape to America," by Kathy Jessup:

Heavy nets infused with the stench of salt and fish concealed the 11-year-old boy hidden in the bottom of a rowboat as it pushed silently away from the dark South Vietnamese shore.

Jim Diep’s older brothers had paid in gold for his 1980 clandestine escape to Thailand. Staying meant the boy risked being snatched into an army of Vietnamese children that was no match for Cambodia’s invading Khmer Rouge.

Diep’s parents didn’t know about the plan. A word to the wrong person before the boy’s departure could have resulted in the whole family disappearing.

Five years after the fall of Saigon, the Dieps knew hunger and few freedoms.

Ironically, it was a clothing catalog from the Soviet Union that had given the boy his first glimpse of another life outside his wartorn country. Young Diep dreamed of the life he projected from the smiling catalog models, dressed in crisp, Western clothing. They had nice things to wear and they were never hungry, he imagined.

When Diep’s brothers laid out his escape plan, it seemed like a boyhood adventure. But as the sun rose over the Sea of Thailand, the fantasy shattered. The fishing net was thrown off and the skinny boy was hoisted onto a deck crowded body-to-body with 48 other refugees. He was a boy alone, fleeing a country that expected him to kill or be killed, bound for an unknown land and an uncharted future.

“All I see is water and sky and I begin to cry like crazy,” Diep begins in clipped, accented English. “I knew it then I was alone. Now I knew I was never going home.”

Diep left Vietnam with only the clothes he was wearing and a little food. He would experience despair, loneliness and facing down death.

But today the married father of three says the lesson of his story is not extraordinary bravado or miracles, but freedom and the American dream.

“In this country, if you work, you got it,” Diep tells Townhall. “You have freedom here and opportunity if you set your mind to it. It is not that way in many other countries. I know in America I can do anything to survive, help my kids and my family. This is what I want my children to know."


Read more of Kathy Jessup's piece in the April isssue of Townhall Magazine.

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