THE BLOG

Canadian Dynamo Emerges from Refugee Camp Childhood

08/28/2014 04:03 EDT | Updated 10/28/2014 05:59 EDT

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Jennifer Moonfoxy (right) with the author in Canada.

Canada is home to people from all over the world, each with a unique story. Many have endured and sacrificed to be here including my dear friend, Jennifer Moonfoxy.

Today, Jennifer is a successful financial services manager with General Motors. She is bright, beautiful, fashionable, witty, charming and has many friends and a vibrant social life. Jennifer's story helps me appreciate the good people in the world - NGOs and individual Canadians among them - working to help innocent families like Jennifer's who need help at a specific point in their lives.

As a young girl, Jennifer was forced to flee Laos with her family. They had to abandon their home and all their belongings. Being caught in this journey meant sure death. I can't imagine the fear that they must have felt, yet Jennifer and her brave family made it. They are a huge success story. Here is what Jennifer shared with me:

Why did your family have to flee Laos?

In 1981, due to corruption, the government of Laos began to crumble. The military took over and the communists seized full control. They began to persecute people who were well-educated. The news came that because of my father's education and status, his name was on a political black list. If he were caught, he would be put in prison or killed. We had to flee immediately.

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Jennifer as a little girl.

Our dangerous plan was to try and escape to Thailand. We knew that if we were caught, it would mean death but we had to take the chance. That night when things were quiet, we all headed into the forest and waded into a dirty swamp. I remember sitting on the shoulders of a soldier who was loyal to my family, and pushing down his metal helmet over his eyes. Each time, he would patiently push it back up.

It was pitch black out and the rain began to fall. We were so scared that no one said a word. That night, we left everything we had ever worked for. But even though we had very little money, we still had each other and we still had the dream of a better life.

Once you were in the refugee camp, what hardships did you and your family have to endure?

Upon arriving in Thailand, we were notified that it was the law for us to check in with the government immigration officials. So rather than finding the dream of freedom, my father and brothers were put in jail. My mom, sisters and I were placed in a refugee camp that was more like a prison. It was packed with thousands of refugees like us and surrounded by a barbed wire fences. Soldiers with guns circled the perimeter. We were told that anyone approaching the fence would be shot and killed. That, combined with the loss of my father and four brothers, was devastating and our new dream of freedom was smashed again.

My mother had suffered through the death of three other children years before. Now she was left to defend three young girls and because of the constant threat of our possible abduction or rape, she had to always be on guard. After three days, my father and brothers were allowed into the camp and we were joyously reunited. My father quickly came up with an ingenious plan for us to survive. He learned how to sew bamboo rice baskets from an old man, and all of us kids became his sales team.

From the age of seven, I was forced each day to go and sell rice baskets from building to building. I knew not to come home unless I sold something or risk getting punished by my mother. We all worked hard and while we may not have had much, we still had each other.

Q. How did World Vision make life better for you and your family?

Perhaps the only bright spot in our life at the time was World Vision. Every two weeks, they brought rice and canned tuna to the camp to help feed our family. To us, World Vision was our only real lifeline. Very often that food was all we had to help survive. They definitely made life better for me and my family.

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Joan and her siblings with a World Vision worker she remembers as "Cathy" in the camp.

Was there anyone in particular from World Vision that you remember?

I do remember one worker from World Vision named Cathy. She was very kind and had a wonderful smile. To me, she was like an angel and I wanted to be like her. In fact the only possession I still have from my childhood is a picture with her in the camp when I was eight years old. Every time I look at it, I still feel her kindness.

How did you come to Canada?

After three years of hard times in the camp, my uncle was still looking for a church that was willing to sponsor us. When the word finally came that we were accepted and going to Canada, it was the greatest day in our lives.

Today as a grown Canadian woman, how do you feel when you reflect back on your life?

I may have faced hunger and hardship but I also feel by persevering through these tough times has made me stronger and definitely more grateful for everything I have here in Canada.

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Jennifer with her father in Canada.

Today there are still many children living in refugee camps around the world. How do you feel when you think about those children?

I often feel guilty that most of those children will never receive the gift of freedom that I was given. I also feel great sadness that most people in our country are unaware of the suffering these kids experience. I believe it is important to raise support and help give these kids a chance to succeed.

What has been your biggest accomplishment in life?

My greatest accomplishment is that I've been able to follow in my father's footsteps and help mentor my fourteen nieces and nephews to excel in higher education and help them become productive citizens of Canada. For me, being able to come to a free country like Canada has been the greatest gift in the world. Thanks to World Vision, the church and both of my parents I have been able to live a life beyond my dreams.