'VOICE TO VISION'
Prof. David Feinberg, Founder | Beth Andrews and J. Wren Supak, co-Directors
Project Description: The Voice to Vision collaborative project captures the extraordinary experiences of genocide survivors from different parts of the world. The stories of the survivors are first shared through dialogue, and then transformed into works of visual art that display painting, drawing, collage, and mixed media. Each art piece has been created through collaboration with a team of artists and genocide survivors. As the survivors share their experiences, members of the collaborative team exchange ideas and make creative decisions together to produce a work of art that reflects the convergence of each voice involved in the project.
The collaboration process is video-documented and edited so that various communities and generations can experience it. The documentaries feature original scores that have been composed by collaborating musicians to reflect the survivor’s stories and sequence the video timeline.
It is the goal of the Voice to Vision project to inspire others to use the tools of dialogue and the visual arts to investigate, recover, and protect their own indigenous narrative and emotional experiences. The art pieces and the video documentaries can connect audiences to some very life changing moments in history and stimulate discussion and education at public showings, in classrooms, and in family settings.
12 Boat Survival Stories
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In an attempt to escape Vietnam, Phuoc Bao Hoang and his sister Kimchi paid a smuggler to travel on a fishing boat. They scrunched in with twenty other strangers under the boat’s wooden cover. Only a few people were on deck, giving off the appearance of a fishing family going about their daily routine. They passed through their village unchallenged. Unfortunately, while they were passing through the next city, police stopped them. The passengers’ dress and lack of shoes gave them away as away as South Vietnamese farmers trying to escape.
The calm night became chaotic as the police shouted for the boat to stop, and began shooting at it with machine guns. A couple of people who could swim jumped off the boat and made it to shore. The others put the boat in reverse to avoid the bullets. Then they headed toward to open sea to try to outrun the police. They began ripping pieces of the wooden floor off the boat throwing them into the ocean. They figured that if the boat were lighter, it would go faster.
The police caught up with them just before they reached freedom in the open sea. They were towed back to the docks. As the boat got close to shore, they all jumped into the shallow waters, running in different directions to lower the risk of them all being caught. Seeing a nine-year-old girl alone, Boa grabbed her and carried her to shore. Kimchi spotted them and gave him her bag
of money. When the siblings separated, the dogs followed Kimchi. Bao and the girl ran toward the highway. There, three police officers asked Bao where they were going. Boa replied, “To a wedding”, and boarded a bus with the girl. The police then recognized that they were escapees from the boat and yelled for the bus driver to stop. Instead, the driver floored the gas allowing them to escape. About three days later, the girl was reunited with her parents at the Hoang family home.
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In 1980 a young Vong Duong said goodbye to his mother as she put him onto a bus headed for a boat on which he would escape Vietnam. Painful memories resurfaced as he recalled the 89 people crowded onto a small 20-foot fishing boat. Fearful that the boat could sink, Vong climbed on top of a 55-gallon oil barrel and stayed there – thinking that if the boat sank; he could hold onto the barrel and say afloat. A drawing of this scene appears in his piece.
It was April, and the seawaters were calm. Vong recalled that once they were out to sea, time did not mean the same as it did before. Three days out on the fragile boat, the propeller prop seal loosened, and the boat began to take on water. A yacht named the “Mayaroma” with a tall mast sailed by. The skipper of the yacht was an Australian named Martin Wurzinger who, along with his seven-year-old son and three-man crew, were heading to Singapore. They stopped and gave food, water, diesel engine fuel and directions to the refugees on the small boat. A drawing of the Mayaroma appears in the artwork.
Shortly after the refugees started out again, their boat began taking on water and all onboard realized they were sinking. They flashed an SOS to the yacht, which headed back to them. Skipper Martin took all 89 passengers onto his yacht, and they sailed off towards Singapore. All on board rationed and divided up the food and water to make it last the entire voyage.
Skipper Martin saved them all! To this day, the refugees all remember him and his yacht “The Maya Roma”. The group had a reunion, and they presented the Skipper with a certificate showing their gratitude. Voice to Vision team’s research discovered that Martin Wurzinger is still alive. A document in which Martin recalls his memories of the encounter is on display with this piece of art.
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Anh Tuyet Tran tried to escape Vietnam with her family on three different occasions, paying smugglers a hefty price for the trip. Her family and many others would wait for hours for a boat to arrive only to be arrested.
In 1989, Tuyet finally managed to escape when she made a deal with the smugglers that she would pay only after she and her family were brought to the boat. She escaped with her eight-year-old son and her five-year-old daughter. On the first day, they boarded a small boat steered by the smugglers. When they reached the larger boat, she gave the smugglers the promised $15,000 dollars and boarded along with 94 other passengers. They had to wait four days before
they were able to pass the international border.
When they reached the ocean, a category eight hurricane struck. Tuyet vividly remembers the up and down lurch of the boat during the storm, the water rising to rest just under her chin. The adults had to hold their children up on top level of the boat so they wouldn’t drown. They had to bail the water out by hand. After finally passing the border, they were stranded on the ocean for 7 days, completely lost. Life was difficult on the boat; there was barely enough water and soup
to sustain the 97 people. They also had to hide from pirates by keeping the boat’s lights off.
The passengers prayed fervently for their safe passage; Tuyet believes two humpback whales answered their prayers. The whales each swam along one side of the boat, effectively protecting the passengers against the turbulent waters of the storm. Humpback whales are known for saving humans from drowning and other species from harm’s way. They only eat while they are in northern winter waters, storing up fat for the time they mate in the Vietnam’s warm seas. After two days the whales left, and the passengers never saw them again.
After the storm, the people searched desperately for land. This is why Tuyet selected a green color for her piece. To her, the color represented the land and the people’s desire to find it. After seven days, they came across an oilrig in Malaysia. The oilrig’s passengers gave them water, bananas, and instructions to get to land. When they finally saw land (Indonesia, Cuckoo Island), they recognized the writhing shape of hundreds of flying birds and a simple bridge connecting the big island to the smaller island. Once they docked, the passengers were taken to a refugee camp where they stayed for three years and two months. In 1993, three years after leaving Vietnam, Tuyet left the refugee camp, traveling to the United States to visit her sister who had left Vietnam in 1975 to live in Minnesota. Ultimately, Tuyet also moved to Minnesota.
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Nineteen-year-old Thomas and his younger brother made their way to Saigon after the war in Vietnam was over. Local people hid them in basement bomb shelters until they could escape by boat under the cover of night. Thomas vividly recalls the long brick and stone path that led to the water’s edge. There, they got into large watertight baskets which they paddled by hand from the shore to a 65-foot fishing boat. The fishing boat signaled to the people in the baskets with five flashes of light. The refugees flashed five light signals back to identify themselves.
They escaped into open waters before the Viet Cong discovered them. The fishing boat was overcrowded, carrying 65 people. As they headed towards Malaysia, the waters were very rough. At some point, they were hit by a tornado, and the winds tossed people up and down, and back and forth. The men feverishly bailed water out of the boat. People were praying in every religion. They all thought they were going to die. Ultimately, the storm turned the boat around, pointing it in the wrong direction
One night, bright lights appeared in the middle of the dark Pacific Ocean. It was a large oil refinery. The men on the rig used ropes to lower bags of canned goods to the refugees from a balcony that rimmed the tall rig. Although the refugees hid the canned foods, shortly thereafter, their small boat was boarded by pirate fishermen with guns. The pirates stole all their money, gold, and canned foods. Thankfully, they did not violate the women or kidnap them, as often happened. And even though these pirates stole all their canned goods, they did cook a meal of rice and fish for the refugees. The pirates also took their GPS, but towed them for a short distance in the right direction. When asked if they would tow them farther, the pirate captain answered by crossing his arms at the wrists, signaling that his hands were tied because he could go to prison for helping them. A drawing of the crossed wrists appears on Thomas’ piece.
After a few more days and nights, the refugees saw land and decided to approach it the next day. A huge Navy Malaysian ship saw them and brought them on board with rope ladders. Thomas decided he wanted to include the naval ship in the artwork rather than fishing boat because, he said, “That’s when we knew we were saved!”
Once in Malaysia they were sent to a refugee camp, sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They were eventually assigned to a local family for one year; and then applied and were interviewed to immigrate to the United States. Bob Jones, from Rochester, Minnesota who had been a US Ambassador, sponsored them.
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Luong La, Lu for short, was a teenager when he and his family escaped by boat from Vietnam. The family had plans to leave on the second day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. It is the country’s biggest holiday, so the hope was that the celebrations would distract from their departure. During this time, Lu could trust no one. He grew up in Hoi An, a small village in South Vietnam near the North Vietnamese border. Secrecy was very important in order not to be caught by the authorities. Lu’s girlfriend, now wife, could not even know that Lu and his family were leaving. The day before their departure, she was at his house talking about their plans for the next day, as if everything was normal. She had no idea the next day Lu and his family would be gone.
Once the ship departed, they were aboard for many days. It was very cold and wet, and they easily lost track of time. As the boat sailed closer to Central Vietnam, the Chinese captured them. They were taken to an island near China and interrogated as if they were spies. Luckily, Lu’s father spoke Chinese and was able to explain that they were escaping from Vietnam. Upon learning this, the Chinese gave them food and water and allowed them to sail away. A few days later, they encountered a Taiwanese fishing ship and hoped they would tow them to Taiwan. The fishermen said they could not, but gave them directions, food, and water.
As they journeyed on, a large storm hit their boat and they became lost. Once again, cold and wet, time became blurred. Because they were so worried and stressed, they were unable to eat. The intensity of the storm filled the boat with water. They used anything they could find to bail the water out; buckets, hats, cups, jugs, their hands, and even wrung out t-shirts. After the storm when they finally reached Taiwan’s shore, everyone was happy to be safe and free, but didn’t know where to go. The captain of another ship gave them directions to “follow the star.” Lu’s family eventually ended up in Hong Kong.
Sixteen years after escaping, Lu went back to Vietnam, found his girlfriend, Kimchi, and they married. Today, they reside in Minnesota.
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Thanh H. Vu and four of his cousins left Saigon in May of 1979 and headed to Rach Gia, Kien Giang province. Ten nights later in total darkness, local police loaded 517 passengers onto a 78-foot long riverboat. The overloaded boat stacked with people like sardines could easily have tipped over. The smells below deck were unbearable. Thanh and two of his cousins sat dangerously on the top deck as the small boat was escorted to open South China Sea waters.
Once alone at sea, two pirate boats carrying thirty Thailan pirates attacked the fleeing ship. Every passenger was robbed, and the pirates separated the men from the women with intentions of rape. Suddenly, a mother holding her baby leaped onto the pirate ship. Since she spoke Thai, the captain was sympathetic and they didn’t harm the women. They did, however, damage the engine before leaving, not allowing them to continue on their journey. The ships mechanic tearfully labored for hours, fearing for all passengers and for his family on board.
Over the next five nights, they continued to be targeted by more Thai pirates. On one of these episodes, a pirate was swinging a sword over his head, threatening to behead people if they didn’t obey. Thanh was standing right next to the pirate and was preparing to jump overboard, but stopped when order was obtained.
They had lost hope of surviving when a large white ship marked “Prospekta Bremen” spotted them. The West Germany R&D ship’s captain and crew recognized how desperate they were and agreed to let everyone on board. The number of passengers packed into the tiny boat surprised the captain. Within twenty-four hours, all 517 survivors had consumed every edible supply the Prospekta Bremen contained. Arrangements were telegraphed to an oil tanker to take them to a UN HRC refugee camp on Pulau Tengah Island, Malaysia.
Negotiations continued for a few months, as many countries rejected refugees. Finally in October of 1979, Thanh was accepted by the USA, as his parents and siblings had been residents in America since 1975. Thanh enrolled in the Minneapolis Technical College and an ESL school and became an Electronics Technician.
“Every day of my life since my escape and rescue, I say thanks to the West German captain, crew, and their ship the Prospekta Bremen. They gave me back the miracle of my life.” –Thanh H. Vu
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Tears flowed from Hien Vo’s eyes as she retold her family’s attempted escape on a small fishing boat overflowing with 80 people. She was five years old and terrified. She remembers being given sleeping pills, along with the other children, so that they would not cry out at night which might alert the military police of the small boat’s whereabouts. One night, she abruptly awoke to machine guns attacking the boat. She peeked out from under her mother’s arm. As she did, she
remembers feeling a bullet’s intense heat as it grazed her back. She saw arms and legs flying as people were dying. The man steering the boat was killed, leaving the boat to spin out of control. The military police kept shooting and screaming for the boat to stop. One brave man ran to grab the controls. His arm was shot off, as he stopped the boat; and then the machine gun bullets ceased.
Her saddest memory was of a little boy. His head lying on his father’s lap - a gaping hole in his back from a gunshot. The child kept pleading over and over: “Are we going to the hospital?” His father replied - holding his hand over the boy’s wound - “‘In 10 minutes, in 10 minutes.” The boy died in his father’s arms. Later, Hien Vo found a piece of the boy’s flesh stuck to her arm.
Everyone on the boat was put in prison; and the guards beat their captain every night. She can remember hearing him yowling and screaming. They didn’t beat the children - they just didn’t give them any food. She would go around the prison with a container asking the other prisoners if they would share their rations. She remembers the Thai prisoners were generous with her and shared their food.
One day, Hien Vo’s father, who was part of a rebellious group in 1975, was separated from the family by the government to do hard labor in the jungle. The family heard nothing of him for a long time. Then, one morning, the family heard he was alive and learned of his whereabouts. Her mother sent him family pictures. Every day he would look at these pictures, motivating him to escape. Finally, he fled from the fields into the jungle and hid underneath the leaves to evade the guards.
Eventually, he met an old couple who knew he was a prisoner and helped him to safety. Knowing the schedule of the guards, they helped him escape by hiding him under a pile of wood. He eventually made it to Saigon with help from the family. To this day, Hien Vo cannot close the narrow pantry door in her kitchen because it reminds her of the narrow cell where her father was imprisoned. He carries scars of his time in prison because his legs are severely impaired.
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Hung Le was in the South Vietnamese Navy during the war which meant that if he were identified by the Vietcong after the war, they could put him in prison for up to 5 years. This is why he decided to try to escape. The boat used for his escape was small, old-fashioned, and was not built for ocean sailing. The owner put wood panels on the sides of the boat to make it look like it was suited for an ocean voyage. In the darkness of night, Hung Le and the other people wanting to escape were fooled. Because of his naval background, Hung Le was chosen to pilot the boat.
Soon, government boats started following them, trying to catch them and bring them back. In an effort to get away, Hung chose to sail straight into the large waves. He thought the government boats would not follow because the move was risky. Although the other passenger told him that he was crazy, he responded, “No, we have no choice. Go!”
Even though the journey was windy and dangerous, they eventually made it to the coast of Thailand. There, they encountered a Thai military ship. They told the people on the ship: “We’re looking for freedom. We cannot live with the Communists.” The Thai agreed to help them, bringing the refugees onto their ship. They made Hung stay on his boat because he was the captain, but they tied the two vessels together. As the sun set the waves were getting really big, and he knew that he could not control the small boat by himself. From his Navy experience, Hung knew the boat would sink, and that he had to get on board the ship. He told someone on the ship that he needed to brush his teeth, so they let him on. A half hour later, the small boat sank. They tried to save it, but they couldn’t. Eventually, they reached land, and they stayed there overnight. There were United Nations people in Bangkok who gave them aid.
He was in a concentration camp for about two years because he was in the navy before his escape. The prisoners were given the chance to go work outside in the fields. Outside the camp there were farmers’ markets, and the people knew the prisoners were from South Vietnam. The prisoners bought food from them, and slowly they became friends. After two years, the farmers helped him escape by moving him from house to house. The plan was that he would go out as if he was going to buy food and then they got him to the bus station to escape. Hung truly believed that God helped save him, which is why he has many crosses placed on his piece to represent how God was with him throughout his journey.
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CamTu Nguyen’s father was a political figure in South Vietnam during the war. As such, he was eligible to be evacuated by American soldiers but to do so, he would have to leave without his family. He did almost board an American helicopter leaving Saigon, but at the last minute, he stepped off because he could not bear to leave his wife and children behind.
Eventually CamTu escaped with her mother and father, and her four siblings. She was 9 years old at the time. The day they were scheduled to leave, CamTu just thought they were going on a fishing trip. They got up very early and all got on a small fishing boat. The only thing that seemed out of the ordinary was that she was told to wear three outfits. She described the situation as chaotic and exciting.
They were on the boat for seven days and seven nights. The small boat was extremely crowded with a total of 50 people on board. CamTu recalls being very seasick—all she could do was lie on the deck and stare at the sky. One day there was a terrible storm, and their boat got caught in a whirlpool. The boat rocked back and forth and the men screamed, “Tie the kids! Tie the women and children down!” CamTu and her siblings were tied together to a pole. All of a sudden they were going around in circles, slowly at first and then faster and faster. The adults realizing the engine had stopped working because a cable had broken. She remembers looking up and thinking that she would fall off the boat. The wind was blowing so hard that she could feel her skin moving. Her mother’s oldest brother and another man pulled the cable together. Suddenly, there was a spark and it started working. The time in the whirlpool seemed like an eternity.
During their journey, they encountered a Russian ship, which they didn’t recognize at first and tried to flag down. But CamTu’s uncle spoke Russian and realized it was a Russian ship by the flag with the hammer and sickle on it. He told them to stop because if Russian boats caught Vietnamese boats trying to escape, they would drag them back to shore to the communists. The Russian ship slowed down to see their boat, and her uncle could understand them, but the Russians said they were after a bigger boat, so they let them go. They were “too small of fish to catch.”
Finally, they reached Singapore. CamTu knew land was near because she felt the sun on her face. Yet when she saw a fish jump over the boat she thought she was hallucinating. All the children stood up on wobbly legs and said “big fish, big fish” which turned out to be dolphins. They had to stay 3 days before they were allowed on land. Eventually, they were able to get to the United States because a church in Kansas offered to sponsor a political family from Vietnam.
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Andy Phu was about 15 years old when he escaped Vietnam in 1978. He traveled with his older sister’s family in a fishing boat along with about 200 other people. On the night they left there was a bright crescent moon in the sky (shown on the left edge of painting). It was scary at night. There were no lights on the boat, and the boat seemed small in the huge ocean.
They ran into pirates one night. Pirates often took advantage of people who were escaping Vietnam. Luckily, no one was physically harmed by the pirates, who fled at the sight of another nearby boat.
Another danger in their escape was storms. The boat could sink or flip over if the water was too rough. In spite of these dangers, Andy recalls having a feeling that things would turn out okay. Their boat did encounter storms, but the storms did not sink the boat. Often, Vietnamese officials would chase down the boats of people fleeing the country. Since Andy’s family was part Chinese, the officials were more willing to look the other way when they left. They wanted people of Chinese ancestry to leave the country. Andy’s family had also paid bribes to the officials.
After three days and four nights, they finally arrived in Malaysia. As they approached shore, they saw dolphins jumping. Upon arrival, they destroyed their boat to ensure that they wouldn’t be forced back to Vietnam. Andy, his older sister, and his sister’s family stayed in Malaysia a little over one year in a refugee camp. Not long after arriving, Andy joined a volunteer group that helped incoming refugees. He and the other volunteers helped newly arriving refugees, particularly women and children, get to shore.
He spent one Chinese New Year in the refugee camp in Malaysia, and the next Chinese New Year in a refugee camp in the Philippines. In 1980, he came to the United States through sponsorship from a Catholic church in Huron, South Dakota. In the painting process, Andy chose an eagle to symbolize his arrival in the United States. He attended high school in Huron then went to the University of Minnesota.
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Dat Nguyen was 15 when he escaped South Vietnam with his father and younger brother. Two days before they left, his father called a meeting (shown in the upper left corner of the painting), where they planned their escape in the middle of the night. Having any lights on in the house at night would’ve been a giveaway to the police, so they used a single oil lamp for light. The use of the oil lamp is a well-known symbol among the South Vietnamese boat people, associated with escaping, and is depicted throughout this painting.
It was nearly midnight when the group of people who would be traveling together met on the beach. Dat’s father, a fisherman, was hired to be the captain of the boat. Most of the people in the group were friends of Dat’s father. The boat was 30ft long and 6 ft wide, so the group of about 20 were crowded, and slept sitting upright. As with many boats in central/south Vietnam, their boat had eyes on either side of the front of the boat; it is considered a symbol of good luck. The night was quiet, still, and very dark. No moon was visible.
They travelled to Hong Kong for four days and five nights. During the day, the weather was bright and clear. Dat watched the water sparkling in the light. For most of the day Dat would talk with people on the boat. The boat in the center of the painting shows his path walking around to different people. Dat is represented by the blue dot, while the red dot shows his father and Dat’s brother, the yellow dot, always by his side.
Finally, they arrived in Hong Kong in the middle of the night. They could see the city and cars from the water. Some of the people on the boat wanted to jump out and swim to shore right then, but Dat’s father advised everyone to stay on the boat and wait until morning. In the morning, the Hong Kong Coast Guard met their boat and brought them to a refugee camp.
Dat stayed at the refugee camp in the Hong Kong for 6 months. They were in a large building, and all of the other refugees there were also from Vietnam. Next, they stayed at a refugee camp in the Philippines for another 6 months. This camp was a bit more interesting because Dat was able to study. However, the heat and earthquakes were drawbacks to staying in the Philippines. Dat’s uncle had moved to St. Paul, Minnesota a few years before, so he helped Dat make the journey to join him in the United States.
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