Tan Lam's Testimony

God Has His Hands on Me

I was born in the late sixties in the peak of the Vietnam War, which rapidly spread into every corner of the country. Growing up during this period, many nights I could hear loud sound of machine guns and mortar firing. I could see streams of red phosphorus tracer bullets whizzing by through the night sky outside my windows. My worst fear about the war was March of 1974; on that afternoon, an 82mm mortar had hit Cai Lay Elementary School near where I was. The mortar killed 32 children and wounded 43 others. I will never forget the pictures of dead students. I did not feel safe going to school and terrified that this could happen to my school.

Another fearful memory about the war was on April 30, 1975, the day when South Vietnam fell to the Communists. On that day four soldiers were killed in front of our house. Anti-tank rockets hit and immobilized their tank from the first blow, but it did not catch fire and explode until the second hit. The smell of burnt and charred human flesh coupled with terrified human screams has haunted me for years. The last days of the Vietnam War were also my last days of school. After the war, the communists used schools for propaganda and children as spies on their families and parents. So my dad decided to pull me out of 4th grade, and I did not go back to school until seven years later after I had escaped from Vietnam.

After winning the war, the communists executed people and put hundreds of thousands of people into labor camps. Over a million families were forced to leave their homes and relocate to unoccupied jungles to develop new economic zones. Farmers were forced to hand over their land, harvests and livestock. The agricultural production fell alarmingly and food supplies decreased to a point of famine. These persecutions caused over a million Vietnamese took to create makeshift boats in an effort to flee from the communists. This group became known as the “boat people,” and I was one of them. Many of the boat people survive perished during the trip across the Gulf of Thailand, facing danger and hardship from pirates, over-crowded boats, and storms.

I left Vietnam at the end of 1980, on a small boat with other 33 people, to begin an uncertain adventure to search to freedom. The first night, the coast guards saw and fired at our boat. We got caught, but they let us go after bribing them. On the second day, we finally reached the international shipping lanes. We felt safe; however, this seeming euphoria was temporary as I remembered a pirate ship approaching us. Fortunately, the pirates only took away jewelry and money that they found. We were so afraid, because we knew Thai pirates raped women and killed men. In numerous instances, pirates also took women and young girls away. Many of these women were sold to pimps and later found as prostitutes in Thailand.

The following day, due to lack of good storage containers, food and water supplies were contaminated with salt water and became useless. The weather was extremely hot, and the bright tropical sun hung motionlessly above our heads. As the temperature rose, we lost more water from the bodies; our throats were dry, parched, and sticky with salty spittle. On the fifth day, a strong wind violently shook our boat; the high dark blue waves tilted the boat from side to side, back and forth. I remember people began to call upon to their gods to save them, which did not seem to help. Whether or not we lived or died, the sea did not care. Thirty-three more human souls in her watery grave was such a small contribution when she already had hundreds of thousands. I did not remember how long the storm lasted. I was completely exhausted with fatigue and hunger, and my vision became blurry. The next thing I remembered, I opened my eyes and saw many strange faces. We were rescued by a Christian Thailand fishing boat.

I arrived at Songkhla’s refugee camp in Thailand on the second day of the Lunar New Year in 1981. Five days later, I was reunited with my sister and my childhood girlfriend. They were on separated boat left a few days after my boat. My friend told me the horrible things that happened to her. Pirates had attacked her boat at least three times a day. Each time after stripping the refugees of their money and jewelry, the pirates separated the men from the women. Some pirates guarded the men while they took turns raping the women and girls. As a girl in Vietnam, my friend was so beautiful and cheerful. When Thai pirates raped her, that night turned my friend’s life from a cheerful into depression and quietude. Sitting on the beach on a quiet evening, I did not know what to say to comfort her, but I was deeply sympathetic.

As we sat there on the beach watching and listening to the wave, we heard the broadcast from a church behind us, “come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthews 11:28). Every night when we came and sat there, we heard a short message from the church behind. The message was all about the hope. These messages led me to the church and accepted Christ as my personal Savior. A month later I was baptized by a Baptist missionary on the beach of Songkhla. There was nothing to do in the camp so I spent many hours reading and memorizing the Bible. Four months later I was transferred to Bataan Refugee Camp in the Philippines, while my friend left for California.

Ten months later, I was allowed to resettle in Dallas, Texas. Immediately after arriving in the United States, I encountered many challenges such as culture, language differences, and prejudice. I felt humiliated whenever I said something that people could not understand, and when kids made fun of me. I was not able to attend public school because I did not have parent lived in the district. One night I went out for a walk and met Charles Gyurko, a missionary and President of Christ for the Nation, Japan. When Charles learned about my situation, he arranged for me to attend a Christian high schools and stayed with the principal’s family. In my senior year, I was a captain of our Bible Quiz team and spent many hours memorizing the Bible. As a former refugee, I have received plenty of assistance from my church, schools, and Christian teachers. They all went the extra mile to help me. I feel that I owe a great deal to God, this country, and my teachers.

In 1988, both my parents passed away in Vietnam on the same day just of couple hours apart. My mom was ill and died from complications with diabetes. After the war, Vietnam became controlled by the Communist’s centrally planned economy. There were severe shortages of food, drugs, and medical supplies. My dad was a nurse practitioner but did know that my mom had diabetes. After my mom passed away, my dad did not want to live without her and took his own life. One of my parents’ dreams was to have one of their 14 children become a doctor. This was a major setback because I lost two of the most significant people in my life. Sometime I do not understand why thing happened to me the way it was. However, I believe that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). In 1992, I established the Tu Luong Medical Mission Foundation (TLF) in honor of my mother and father Tu and Luong respectively. TLF’s first purpose was to organize medical teams to provide free medical services to Vietnamese refugees in Southeast Asia.

When I was a kid I always dreamed of becoming a doctor and find a cure for cancer. Collectively, I had about ten years of cancer, immunology, and virology research experience. In college, I helped developed a model that represent different stages of tumorigenic progression from normal embryonic cells to immortal, transformed, cancer cells, and metastatic cancer cells. As a graduate student at Dartmouth Medical School, my research involved cancer and viral immunology.

After graduating from Dartmouth, I went back to my alma mater to teach Science. My goal was to teach for three to five years and then return to medical school. That was 26 years ago. It was then that I altered my trajectory from becoming a physician to becoming a teacher. As a former refugee, a school dropout, and an English language learner, my teachers went the extra mile to help me. I believe that becoming a teacher is one of the best ways to honor these teachers from times past. As my teaching career winds down, I have begun to think about what legacy I will leave behind when my life has passed. 

In 2019 I applied and got approved by the Washington State Board of Education to establish the Seattle Mini Medical School (SMMS), which provides full curriculum for grades 6-12 that focuses on STEM, Medicine, and Medical Mission. SMMS is designed for students who are serious about pursuing a career in medicine by providing a way to expose students to the biomedical science and clinical skills early on in their education. Our medical mission will provide students with clinical experiences that instill compassion and help students understand the true meaning of medicine and service. I hope to use SMMS to guide, encourage, and educate the future physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to have compassion for the poor and needy both locally and globally. I hope that students will accomplish that I was not able to do.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, do not fear; I will help you (Isaiah 41:13).

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