From One Life to Another

From One Life to Another

Jackie Velisek was born in Can Tho, Vietnam, and was 9 years old when she started her journey to America. Jackie says that in 1980, she and her family, along with a lot of other families, escaped from the communists in Vietnam by boat.  They used canoe-like, long and narrow, water taxis that could hold 8 passengers at a time, the canoes brought them aboard a bigger fisherman boat that was anchored farther out from the shore. The fisherman boat was designed to hold and operate with 12 fishermen, the boat was able to hold 70 refugees. One of the refugees jumped overboard and swam back to shore. He got scared and assessed that the odds were against us especially when authorities and soldiers sounded the alarms.   As soon as the alarms had sounded, the soldiers started shooting at the boat and began chasing after us. The man’s fears were correct,the odds were against most refugees fleeing Vietnam by boat. From 1978 to the early 1990’s, only 25% of the refugees attempted this journey and successfully made it to America. Also, the man who swam back to shore would later learn that he was the only one of us that did not make it to America.

When Jackie was coming to America, she had some detours. It wasn’t like a layover when on a long flight from California to New York.  Let’s say you and your plane stops in Chicago. “We wound up in Thailand, only by luck and barely hanging onto life” Jackie said. Jackie did also make stories on her way here, “I don’t hear stories of our journey very often. My mother would recall this or that and go into story-telling mode, but that was earlier on when I was young. A group of us remained close, staying together when we were in the Thai refugee camps and later on reuniting in San Jose California, but we’ve all grown with families and responsibilities that we don’t get to connect and reunite often”. 

Jackie had faced life or death situations during her journey to America, “At sea, we endured horrific, damaging storms, in 2 of the 6 days on the boat. We were lost, our captain wasn’t very experienced with the sea, and the trip should have been a few hours or taken half a day at the most. However, the days go by without any shore in sight. After 6 days and nights without food or water, I was very sick and at death’s door. The elements and dehydration were not the only dangerous threats, we were robbed by armed pirates three times. Three different encounters with different groups of violent men with each group getting angrier as less loot was left for them to raid”.

You might not believe this but about a year before Jackie left Vietnam she died and was brought back to life. When Jackie was 7 she had a semi-deep pond in her backyard, and one day she was trying to catch a frog that had jumped into the pond. She reached too far and fell in. She tried as hard as she could to get out of the water but she couldn’t, she was drowning and when her mom came out to get her, her heart stopped. In the town she was living in an area where doctors weren’t allowed to live around the area but nobody knew that there was still a doctor living there. Fortunately, the only person that knew that there was a doctor was Jackie’s mom, her mom ran as fast as she could to get him and luckily he was there just in time to save her, she brought her back to life, “ I’m grateful someone with CPR training was there to save me.” She had faced another life or death situation and it was when she was on a boat to America,  “As for the boat experience, it was the last group of pirates that after their raid and once they regret their anger, they gave us some fruits, and water. At one point, they were convinced there would be gold hidden in the engine, (only place they had not looked) they had destroyed our boat’s engine. Leaving us to float with uncertainty, they felt guilt and gave us some food and water.” I asked Jackie how she felt when she finally got to America. “I never had the feeling of ‘here we are, we finally made it'”, says, Jackie, “because America becomes a new journey with new adventures and challenges.”