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Vietnamese fire survivor and siblings thrive in US

Saturday, December 26, 2015, 11:57 GMT+7
Vietnamese fire survivor and siblings thrive in US

A Vietnamese girl and her sisters who survived a blaze nearly 14 years ago have triumphed over multiple surgeries and insecurity to live life to the fullest in the U.S.

Huyen Kiki Vo, 24, and her two younger sisters have proved their relatives gloomy future predictions wrong after they escaped with their lives from an inferno that broke out in 2000.

Huyen’s mother, however, did not make it as the fire raged and reduced their peaceful life in the southern Vietnamese province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau to ashes in the blink of an eye.

Huyen and her two younger sisters came out of the ordeal alive but have sustained third-degree burns and shrinking limbs.

Though Huyen has resided in the U.S. for nearly 14 years now, she still addresses herself with her Vietnamese name and speaks her mother tongue proficiently.

The disaster struck when Huyen, the eldest sister to Nhi, Lili, Gigi and Mimi, was only nine.

Back in 2000, while they were living in Ba Ria-Vung Tau, she and her two sisters dropped by their mother’s small shop while she was pouring petrol into an old motorbike.

Nhi, with a kerosene lamp in her hand, dashed towards their mother, triggering an explosion.

“Our story was covered by local media and a Vietnamese American reader managed to get us free treatment at Shriners Hospitals for Children [a network of 22 non-profit medical facilities across North America] in the U.S.,” Huyen recalled.

Oblivious of what was ahead of them in a faraway country, their father was set on trying in every way possible to help his girls.

The girls’ trip to the U.S. was made possible thanks to a fund created by readers of the article.

The girls underwent countless surgeries in their first 10 years in the U.S. Huyen herself went through nearly 30 before she turned 18.

When they first arrived in the U.S, they live in a damp basement room with no beds or a heater in Boston.

Huyen’s father, who stayed in the country on a tourist visa, could only work at Vietnamese Americans’ markets or do menial jobs.  

Two years later, as time on his visa was running out, Huyen’s father moved his family to another Shriners hospital in Sacramento, California thanks to donations from Vietnamese Americans in Boston in order to avoid deportation.

There Huyen and her two sisters went on with their operations and began going to school.

Their father clung onto a glimmer of hope that if they could live a proper life and do well at school, the U.S. government would spare them deportation.

Huyen overcame her anxiety and pains from her unsightly criss-crossing scars.

Upon high school graduation, she emerged as a top candidate for a place at the University of California, Berkeley.

Huyen’s two youngest sisters who had been tended to by their grandma were also reunited with their family in the U.S.

The relief was short-lived however when Huyen’s father was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2012.

He was told to undergo a liver transplant, but had no insurance and feared being sent back to Vietnam if he was hospitalized.

“At last I did call an ambulance to rush him to the hospital, but it was too late by then. His deathbed wish was that as the eldest child, I would do everything to keep his five girls together,” Huyen said emotionally.

Her younger siblings have also received tremendous assistance from a local firefighter and his family who they got to know at a camp meant for burn victims in California.

Huyen made her way through university by working two jobs and applying for a scholarship intended for migrants.

She ceased all of her surgeries to focus on her studies.

During her high school years, Huyen and her two sisters had a limited circle of friends and dared not to venture out from their safe zone.

The girls would wear long-sleeved shirts and leave their hair loose to make their scars less conspicuous.

“In high school, I was just like this odd kid who had few friends. There were a few times when I attempted suicide by gulping down pills,” Huyen shared.

University life opened a new window for Huyen, who then realized that her beauty lies in her strength to get over challenges.

She no longer shies away from bikinis and has conducted a research paper on how female burn victims encounter and overcome post-fire pressure and hurdles.

Several newswires have also posted a collection of Huyen’s photos which reveal the scars on her body as an assertive indication of her fervent life lust and iron will.

Following in her sister’s footsteps, Nhi also managed to land a scholarship and graduate from the University of California, Davis before returning to work at Shriners Hospitals.

After graduating, Huyen is currently working at an elementary school.

Her two other sisters are also enrolled in two different schools of California University.

“I’d love to learn more Vietnamese so that I could work as an interpreter in the U.S. and talk with ease to people in my home country,” Huyen revealed.

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