Out of Vietnam: A family is restored

Published 9:38 pm Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The story of how Thi-Le found her long-lost brother spans four and a half decades and five countries and features a war, a genocidal dictator, a secretive stepmother and a rare birthmark.

Le and her husband, Doan Than, own and operate a shoe repair and alterations shop on Suffolk’s West Washington Street. But they started their lives half a world away, in Vietnam, before the war started.

Le was born in 1954, and she had two sisters and an older brother. Because of her father’s political views, he had been blacklisted, and the family was in exile in Cambodia, with her father under an assumed identity that had previously belonged to a dead man.

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When Le was 11, her mother died. Her father remarried, and a half-brother, Vinhu-Le, was added to the family in 1967. The family got a shock when he was born — a purple birthmark covered part of the right side of his face and also extended onto his eye, covering part of the white of his eye.

At the time, nobody had any idea that this birthmark would prove key to their quest to reunite the family more than 40 years later.

Two years after Vinhu was born, their father died of liver cancer.

“My father worried about us,” Le said. On his deathbed, he made her promise to try to keep the family together, even as the Vietnam War had the region in turmoil.

Le made the promise. But after her older brother died in action in the war and the girls were sent to live with a friend of her father’s, it didn’t seem like a promise she’d be able to keep.

The family friend and the girls moved back to Vietnam and lost contact with the girls’ stepmother and their half-brother.

A lot changed in Le’s life. She married in 1975 and had a daughter in 1978 and a son in 1980, both born in Vietnam. The family tried to escape Vietnam several times, one attempt ending in a two-year prison sentence for husband Than.

After he was released, the family spent four months in a refugee camp in Malaysia in 1985 and also lived in the Philippines for about six months, where Le took English classes. The family in 1986 made its way to America, where Than had earlier worked as an interpreter.

“I’m very lucky,” Le remembers thinking. Even so, she thought about her younger brother often, wondering if he was well. The devastation Pol Pot had brought upon Cambodia made her wonder if he was even alive.

“Every time I thought about my brother, I said, ‘I want to find my youngest brother,’” she said. “‘Now I don’t know where he is.’”

She never imagined they were now on the same continent once again.

A few years ago, Le determined to make an effort to find her brother.

“If we don’t try it, how can we find him?” said Than, her husband.

She decided to place advertisements in Vietnamese newspapers. But after talking with relatives in Vietnam about the culture, she learned this wasn’t a good idea.

“Most people, they are low education,” Than said. “Nobody reads much.”

But what most people do is watch television, they learned.

The couple spent $100US to place an advertisement on prime-time television in their home country. The amount doesn’t sound like much in the United States but is a staggering sum in Vietnam — roughly equal to a schoolteacher’s monthly pay.

The day after the first announcement ran, Than’s mother called her cousin, and word eventually got to Le and Than that someone knew where her brother was.

But the trail dried up, and they couldn’t get back in contact with the people who had called them. They considered offering a reward, but were afraid someone would make up false information to collect the money.

After a month, they decided to run another ad. And they got more calls.

Le learned her stepmother had eventually married an American and moved with their brother to America, never telling him he had three older sisters and a deceased older brother. Later, her stepmother’s husband died, and her stepmother had fallen ill and decided to live out the rest of her days in her home country of Vietnam.

But her brother was living in Colorado, with a wife and two children. It wasn’t long before the siblings were talking on the phone.

Just to be sure, she questioned the man on the other end of the line about the unusual birthmark in and around his eye.

“That’s when I found out,” she said. “Oh my God, I’m happy.”

She flew to Colorado to see her brother in September 2013.

“I was very happy,” Le said. Her brother said, “I never knew I have three sisters and one brother.”

The four surviving siblings have also vacationed together in San Francisco and Skype regularly. One of the other sisters lives in Canada, and the third lives in California.

Le even got the opportunity to travel to Vietnam and see her stepmother again before she died.

“I told her I was happy to see her again,” Le said.

She learned her stepmother had tried to find the girls after they moved back to Vietnam, but so much had changed.

“There were a lot of changes in Vietnam and in Cambodia, too,” Than said.

Le said all four of the siblings — and, she is sure, their father — are happy they are reunited.

“I’m very happy, and my brother’s happy, too,” she said. “I think about my father, and I think he’s happy, too.”