The first time I met Phung Nguyen he modestly said, “I don’t consider myself a resilient person.”
When I heard the story of how he helped build a village for refugees in the Philippines, I couldn’t disagree with him more.
Phung was born 73 years ago in Vietnam. In 1964 he came to Canada on a scholarship to study engineering at Montreal’s McGill University.
During this time, life back home became increasingly violent with the beginning of the Vietnam War followed by decades of civil unrest.
Many Vietnamese fled by sea in a harrowing escape with some making it to the shores of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. They were called, Boat People.
Eight of Phung’s family members were among those who escaped in search of freedom, but their journey would not have a happy ending. They all perished at sea.
In 1996 while operating his own consulting practice in Toronto, Phung learned of a large group of Vietnamese boat people who were living in a refugee camp on the tiny island of Palawan in the Philippines.
The Vietnamese community in Los Angeles and Australia raised $1 million to build a village for them. Phung and his wife made the decision to contribute something more personal by flying to the Philippines to help construct it.
That October a small team of both local and international labourers, construction managers, and members of The Church Of The Philippines joined them in Puerto Princesa.
Aside from the mere size of this group, there would be massive challenges ahead like performing heavy labour in extreme heat for 18-hour days, lack of proper machinery and transportation, poor sleeping conditions, as well as no electricity, running water or roads.
But the vision for a better life for these displaced people motivated all of them to persevere and make the village a reality.
By March of the following year, 700 people were able to move into their new homes. It was a moment of pride for everyone.
“I didn’t get paid but the return was love,” said Phung. “I worked long hours but I did not suffer. That was more meaningful and worth more than money.’”
I asked him if it was important for him to help these people because of the horrible fate of his own family.
“I’m so lucky, not like my brothers and sisters,” he said. “We felt that we had the capabilities to help these people, we had freedom.”
In 1998 Phung returned to Puerto Princesa for an anniversary celebration and shared a yearbook he had created for them. He regards his experience in Palawan as the highest achievement in his life.
He recently wrote in an article, “I learned that money is not everything. The joys of life are behind sacrifices, endurance, giving and receiving love.”
Phung is an example of someone who was able to take his pain and turn it into something positive for others.
That definitely makes him resilient.
To learn more about his story, Phung has generously written a beautiful account of his experience in Palawan in an article found here.