TEMPLE — Tom Dao calls America “heaven.” But, before he arrived in his self-proclaimed utopia, he had to endure hell.
Dao, who now manages a Temple nail salon, collapsed on an Indonesian beach on May 13, 1984, after spending seven days and six nights in a small boat with 46 other people fleeing Vietnam and the communists who took it over.
He spent those long days and nights crouched in a 6-foot by 18-foot small boat with no room to stand or move his legs or arms, Dao said. And there was no food, only water.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the nation after April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
Dao was born April 5, 1961. His father was in the military, which brought his family under suspicion once the communists took over the country, he said.
“We knew we couldn’t stay. We had no freedom, no human rights, no more schooling,” Dao said. “We couldn’t pray. If we prayed, we got in trouble.”
About 200,000 people died hoping to find freedom, Dao said.
Dao and his brother boarded the small boat at the dock at 10 p.m. under the cover of darkness. Included in the group onboard were three children and several women.
One woman wanted to get out of the boat because she was seeing things.
Her husband begged people to hold her inside the boat, Dao said.
Before 1975, students learned English as a second language, but children were forced to learn Russian after the fall of Saigon.
Dao’s brother was put in prison because he had been in the military.
He was kept there for three months, and did hard labor all day with little food or water. Many people never made it out of prison because they were killed by the guards, Dao said.
“They tried to put me in jail once, but I ran and escaped. If I was shot in the back while running, it wasn’t any worse than dying in prison. I’d die either way,” Dao said.
Once the boat Dao was on arrived at the island, he and others had to find their way through the water with their bodies temporarily crippled after being forced to stay in cramped conditions for a week on the boat. But once Dao started moving his arms, he felt like he was flying, he said.
Danish oil company workers brought food and water to the refugees where they collapsed on the beach. After sleeping overnight on the sand, he could finally straighten out his legs, Dao said.
He said he worked at whatever job he could find for about $20 a day.
The refugees from his boat and others stayed on the island for two weeks before about 600 of them boarded a larger boat and went to the Galang Big Island Refugee Camp, joining about 4,000 to 5,000 other refugees already there. Dao and his brother stayed there for 10 months.
Dao and his family stepped off the airplane in the United States on May 8, 1985. He still calls the United States “heaven.”
Dao’s parents died in Vietnam. His younger sister still lives there, and he talks to her sometimes on the phone. He tries to send her money every month to help keep her three children in school.
“Vietnam is still 90 percent communist. I went back once in 1993 for two weeks to see my father before he died. I won’t take my son, who is 16, there until the communism is gone. If I go, they might not let us come back,” Dao said.
Dao said he sometimes dreams he is still in Vietnam and he wakes up afraid.
He learned to do nails and now he and his wife manage All Pro Nails at 2825 Thornton Lane. He met his wife in Houston at a Vietnamese Catholic Church, but later found out he knew her brother from the refugee camp.
He said he didn’t know her then because she was younger.
Learning English has been a difficult process for Dao. He watches TV, listens and asks people for explanations when he doesn’t understand something they’ve said.
And Dao gives thanks every day for the country that welcomed him and allows him to call it home, he said.
“You opened your hands for us to come here. Thank you. Thank you,” he said.