TO BE HONEST: Dramatic escape of the vietnamese boat people

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Why San Diego-based photographer will always have her heart in Sheffield

Lesley Vu was seven years old when she escaped the communist regime in Vietnam.

The only way out was by sea - 1.5 million took to overcrowded, makeshift boats and some 200,000 drowned, were murdered by pirates or captured and sold into prostitution. Lesley and her family were among the 19,000 allowed to make a new life in Britain.

She now lives in San Diego, but her heart belongs to Sheffield, the city that offered the first Vietnamese Boat people sanctuary.

Q. Where were you born and why did you leave?

A. In Saigon, the city now known as Ho Chi Minh in South Vietnam. When the Communists came in my parents felt there was no greater freedom than living in a democratic country. In 1979 my father sold everything to pay for as many of his family members as possible to get out.

Q. What do you remember?

A. There were 19 of us. We had paid handsomely for seats in a two-story wooden boat built to hold 150 people. But on the night of the escape, the seats were ripped out and an extra 150 were crammed in like sardines. I had a hammock above the first deck. We saw pirates in the distance and turned off all the lights and stayed quiet until they passed. A large shark kept pace with our boat. Someone threw something towards it and it left us alone. Years later, my father told me a baby had been born on the boat but didn’t survive. Reluctantly, it had thrown overboard to fend off the shark.

We almost lost my eldest sister. She was on the lower deck where it was so crowded she couldn’t breathe. She was almost unconscious when my father got to her.

Q. How long were you at sea?

A. After four days we were picked up by a British Navy ship and taken to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. We were there for two weeks. It was horrible; the wardens treated us like prisoners. Then we were granted acceptance by the UK. We were taken to Newcastle, which felt like heaven. We couldn’t communicate, but people treated us with respect and kindness.

I remember looking at cornflakes and Weetabix and not knowing how to eat it. A kind vicar and his wife gave me a pocket-sized Bible; I still have it to this day.

Q. Then you were taken Sheffield. How did that feel?

A. We made the headlines. We were the first Vietnamese people in Sheffield. It felt so strange - all that we had of our homeland were some family photographs. But the people were warm and welcoming. We lived in Darnall and attended Phillimore School. We didn’t understand when kids called us names.

One day, at playtime, chocolate biscuits and milk were given out. I didn’t know parents had to pay for it and I didn’t get any, but a girl named Nesreen shared her biscuit with me and we are still fiends today.

Q. Was life a struggle?

A. Oh yes. The entire family lived on £5 a week. Rice and packet noodles were our staple. Charities gave us clothes and food. My parents found the language very hard but took any job they could, saving up to open their own take-away, the Red Sky. My aunt opened one called Happy Garden. We served Chinese food as we are of Chinese decent.

At Park House School there were teachers who made a difference for kids like me. Mr. Hill agreed to stay after school to help me with my English studies. Another, Peter Feek, was very instrumental for the way I’ve turned out. He took a handful of us “not-so-cool” kids lawn bowling and took me to the Crucible to broaden my horizons. He pushed me to aim high and he was right (though he was annoying at the time).

Q. Why did you leave for another new life in America?

A. By the mid 1980s, unemployment was high and my dad worried his children would be out of work. When his sister in San Diego died of cancer he flew out to her funeral and realised America was booming. He decided to sell the take-away and take my mum, my brother Hao and me to San Diego. My other siblings stayed in Sheffield with relatives. As an un-worldly 18-year old, it felt like another frightening escape to obscurity.

Q. What happened?

A. Adjusting to life in California was excruciating. I cried myself to sleep every night for three years because I missed Sheffield.

My parents had no jobs and the cost of living was high. We took odd jobs to make ends meet and lived in fear every month. I had to wait two years to become a resident before I could afford to go to college. The lavish California lifestyle made me feel so inadequate. Girls had their own cars and designer clothes. In Sheffield I’d shopped at Sheaf market and C&A.

I yearned to go home but I had to get my education and bail my family out. I got into the University of California, San Diego thanks to Peter writing me a glowing recommendation and studied while waitressing. I graduated in record time; that was the beginning of our transformation in America.

Q. What happened to your brothers and sisters?

A. My eldest brother Andrew Tat escaped to America and I found him in 1989. My eldest sister Thanh lives in London, my younger sisters both live and work in Sheffield - Huong for Marks & Spencers and Hanh for John Lewis. My brother Hao, who went with me to the States, is a web designer in San Francisco and our younger brother Peter works for the BBC,

Q. Have you been back to Vietnam?

A. No. Our house in ‘Nam is still there but I have any desire to revisit the past. Besides, home is Sheffield. I visit every other year to touch base with my roots. The people I grew up with, and Peter my teacher, remain my closest friends.

My husband and I own a home in San Diego and support my parents. I have my own photography business. I feel blessed to have had three lives and met some wonderful people. My parents gave me the best childhood possible. My friends and the people of Sheffield taught me it’s the things money can’t buy that bring enduring happiness. And America has allowed me to make dreams a reality.