After 22 years in Vietnamese prison, man reunites with son

police officer for the South Vietnamese Army, sent to a “re-education” camp by leaders of Vietnam’s new communist regime.

Phan’s father was released in 1982, but remained watched. When Ban Phan joined an anti-communist movement, he was re-arrested in 1985.

Vinh Phan followed in his father’s footsteps, earning his own stint in prison before he escaped and fled to Thailand. He was arrested and imprisoned there, but he was eventually pardoned. He and his mother came to Rockford in 1994.

Since then, Vinh Phan has worked for his father’s release, petitioning the United States government for its political clout.

In May, Vietnamese President Triet Nguyen granted Ban Phan a pardon, citing his age and a desire to be reunited with his family, according to an Associated Press story.

Ban Phan was expelled from Vietnam and told never to return. He went to Thailand, eventually seeing his son there. It was their first meeting in more than two decades.

“When I went to Thailand, he didn’t know me,” Vinh Phan said. Now 42, his face is finely lined from his own prison hardships and years of worrying for his father. “He was skinny. He looked like he was tired.”

Ban Phan had more challenges. The United States denied him entry into the country, believing he had tortured anti-communists while working as a police officer.

After months of petitioning the government with the help of Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers, the United States granted him one year’s stay in the country.

Vinh Phan found out this week his father would be coming home. He now has a year to figure out how to keep him here.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Vinh Phan said. “… I lost 22 years. Now I don’t want to let him go.”

Waiting
Vinh is still standing in the terminal when his friend, Phuc Nguyen, sees on the arrival board that American 154 has landed.

At the designated area, Vinh; his 9-year-old daughter, Kim; Nguyen; and Vinh’s father-in-law, Tham Le, wait anxiously.

Every few seconds, a knot of travelers walk through smoky glass doors separating the public from customs. Vinh scans every face, then peers through the doors. He stands at the front of a cordoned-off area near the arrival door, one of dozens awaiting a loved one.

Minutes tick by. Kim tries to be still, but her 9-year-old sensibilities take over. She wanders away from her dad, gliding around the terminal on her heelies, sneakers with roller skate wheels in the heel.

“She only knows she’s meeting her grandfather,” Vinh says. “She doesn’t know the rest.”

More waiting. Vinh stands on his tiptoes, peering across the crowds. It’s been an hour since American 154 hit the tarmac. For the first time, anxiety crawls across his face.

“I’m getting worried,” he says. “I don’t understand what’s taking so long.”

Now Vinh can’t be still.

He goes to a Transportation Security Administration employee, asking for help. He moves to the outside of the rope line, subconsciously creeping toward the door.

An hour and a half after his father’s plane lands, he learns it can take up to two hours for non-U.S. citizens to clear customs.

Vinh relaxes a notch and checks the time.

Then he spots a frail man with salt-and-pepper hair.

The happy reunion
Vinh excitedly squeezes his daughter’s shoulder and waves, a broad smile warming his face.

Ban Phan’s face is sunken with age. He is stooped and slight, but he’s gained weight since Vinh saw him in Thailand and is neatly dressed in a gray suit.

Father and son hug, and Kim shyly waves at her grandfather. Ban turns to his son, who nods: This is your granddaughter.

Ban Phan wraps the girl up in a hug. Pictures are snapped, then the family starts to make its way to the parking lot.

“He’s very happy to be in the United States,” says Nguyen, translating for Ban Phan. “He’s so happy to see his family.”

Ban Phan stops to pick up his luggage — a duffel bag and two lightly packed shopping bags — but is barely able to handle the load.

He waits only moments, however, before his son snatches the bags away.

Friday night, they eat as a family — father, mother, son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and assorted friends.

Today, they start a new life that’s been 22 years in the making.

“I’m very happy my father is here,” Vinh Phan says as the family leaves the airport. “I’ve waited for so long. I never thought this would happen. I never thought I’d get him here.”

Staff writer Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at 815-987-1410 or sdriscoll@rrstar.com.

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SCOTT MORGAN | RRSTAR.COM
Vinh Phan (center left), his daughter Kim Phan, 9, and friend Phuc Nguyen wait at the international terminal at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago for Phan’s father Ban Phan to arrive Oct. 19 after spending 22 years in a Vietnamese prison for taking part in anti-communist activities.

Father is ‘very happy to be in the U.S.’

Oct 19, 2007 @ 11:59 PM

By Sean F. Driscoll

RRSTAR.COM

CHICAGO -Travelers swirl through the international terminal at O’Hare, darting through exits and squinting at signs. A cacophony of different languages floats through the air, accompanied by a jazz duo playing lightly in the background.

In the middle of the hubbub, Vinh Phan stands serenely, his hands clasped in front of him, a polite smile on his face. He doesn’t want to sit, preferring instead to stretch his legs after the car ride from his Rockford home.

It’s shortly after 3 p.m. Friday. American Airlines flight 154 is running early on its 11-hour, 6,000-mile journey from Tokyo. It carries his 70-year-old father, Ban Phan, freed earlier this year after 22 years in a Vietnamese prison camp.

“I’m so happy,” Vinh says, speaking softly in broken English. “I didn’t think this would ever happen. Now I can reunite my family.”

‘He didn’t know me’

The Phans’ story begins in 1975, when a 9-year-old Vinh saw his father, then a police officer for the South Vietnamese Army, sent to a “re-education” camp by leaders of Vietnam’s new communist regime.

Phan’s father was released in 1982, but remained watched. When Ban Phan joined an anti-communist movement, he was re-arrested in 1985.

Vinh Phan followed in his father’s footsteps, earning his own stint in prison before he escaped and fled to Thailand. He was arrested and imprisoned there, but he was eventually pardoned. He and his mother came to Rockford in 1994.

Since then, Vinh Phan has worked for his father’s release, petitioning the United States government for its political clout.

In May, Vietnamese President Triet Nguyen granted Ban Phan a pardon, citing his age and a desire to be reunited with his family, according to an Associated Press story.

Ban Phan was expelled from Vietnam and told never to return. He went to Thailand, eventually seeing his son there. It was their first meeting in more than two decades.

“When I went to Thailand, he didn’t know me,” Vinh Phan said. Now 42, his face is finely lined from his own prison hardships and years of worrying for his father. “He was skinny. He looked like he was tired.”

Ban Phan had more challenges. The United States denied him entry into the country, believing he had tortured anti-communists while working as a police officer.

After months of petitioning the government with the help of Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers, the United States granted him one year’s stay in the country.

Vinh Phan found out this week his father would be coming home. He now has a year to figure out how to keep him here.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Vinh Phan said. “… I lost 22 years. Now I don’t want to let him go.”

Waiting
Vinh is still standing in the terminal when his friend, Phuc Nguyen, sees on the arrival board that American 154 has landed.

At the designated area, Vinh; his 9-year-old daughter, Kim; Nguyen; and Vinh’s father-in-law, Tham Le, wait anxiously.

Every few seconds, a knot of travelers walk through smoky glass doors separating the public from customs. Vinh scans every face, then peers through the doors. He stands at the front of a cordoned-off area near the arrival door, one of dozens awaiting a loved one.

Minutes tick by. Kim tries to be still, but her 9-year-old sensibilities take over. She wanders away from her dad, gliding around the terminal on her heelies, sneakers with roller skate wheels in the heel.

“She only knows she’s meeting her grandfather,” Vinh says. “She doesn’t know the rest.”

More waiting. Vinh stands on his tiptoes, peering across the crowds. It’s been an hour since American 154 hit the tarmac. For the first time, anxiety crawls across his face.

“I’m getting worried,” he says. “I don’t understand what’s taking so long.”

Now Vinh can’t be still.

He goes to a Transportation Security Administration employee, asking for help. He moves to the outside of the rope line, subconsciously creeping toward the door.

An hour and a half after his father’s plane lands, he learns it can take up to two hours for non-U.S. citizens to clear customs.

Vinh relaxes a notch and checks the time.

Then he spots a frail man with salt-and-pepper hair.

The happy reunion
Vinh excitedly squeezes his daughter’s shoulder and waves, a broad smile warming his face.

Ban Phan’s face is sunken with age. He is stooped and slight, but he’s gained weight since Vinh saw him in Thailand and is neatly dressed in a gray suit.

Father and son hug, and Kim shyly waves at her grandfather. Ban turns to his son, who nods: This is your granddaughter.

Ban Phan wraps the girl up in a hug. Pictures are snapped, then the family starts to make its way to the parking lot.

“He’s very happy to be in the United States,” says Nguyen, translating for Ban Phan. “He’s so happy to see his family.”

Ban Phan stops to pick up his luggage — a duffel bag and two lightly packed shopping bags — but is barely able to handle the load.

He waits only moments, however, before his son snatches the bags away.

Friday night, they eat as a family — father, mother, son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and assorted friends.

Today, they start a new life that’s been 22 years in the making.

“I’m very happy my father is here,” Vinh Phan says as the family leaves the airport. “I’ve waited for so long. I never thought this would happen. I never thought I’d get him here.”

Staff writer Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at 815-987-1410 or sdriscoll@rrstar.com.

SCOTT MORGAN | RRSTAR.COM
Vinh Phan and his daughter Kim Phan, 9, talk to officials Oct. 19 at the international terminal at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago as they inquire about Ban Phan’s arrival to the United States after spending 22 years in a Vietnamese prison for taking part in anti-communist activities.

SCOTT MORGAN | RRSTAR.COM
Vinh Phan (right) and his daughter Kim Phan, 9, have their picture taken Oct. 19 with Phan’s father, Ban Phan, by friend Phuc Nguyen after the elder Phan’s arrival in the United States after spending 22 years in a Vietnamese prison for taking part in anti-communist activities.

SCOTT MORGAN | RRSTAR.COM
Vinh Phan (center) watches as his father Ban Phan (right) leans in to hug his granddaughter Kim Phan, 9, as he meets her for the first time Oct. 19 after his arrival to the United States after spending 22 years in a Vietnamese prison for taking part in anti-communist activities.