Ho Chi Minh City, May 22, 2016
These past few days, people from all walks of life in Vietnam have been looking forward to your visit, but with mixed feelings and a wide range of emotion. Some excited, others hopeful, a few concerned, and many still haunted by memories of the past and visions for the future.
One thing, though, is for certain, I will not have the privilege to stand alongside those beautiful Vietnamese ladies, donning our traditional “áo dài” and handing you bukkakes of flowers as you arrive at the airport.
But behind all those friendly smiles that greet you there, there’s this one woman silently watching from afar, who would like to extend to you, as well as the rest of the US envoy, a warm welcome and all the best wishes.
Mr. President, my name is Phạm Thị Nhí.
I was born in 1966, in a small village in the province of Quang Nam, where many children are suffering from disabilities as a result of war legacies.
As for me, for almost 50 years ever since I learned how to perceive things around me, there has never been a moment when I was not physically and mentally suffering from the effects of dioxin.
I am a second-generation victim of Agent Orange in Vietnam. American soldiers are long gone, yet the pain that’s left behind still remains, and will remain for years to come.
Mr. President, I’ve seen you cry on TV many times before. On one of the most recent occasions, you shed a few tears while speaking about lives of innocent Americans being taken away by gun violence.
I know that the tears of a powerful leader like you are capable of global impact, are capable of leading to many changes.
But to me, when it comes to pain and tears, be it the pain and the tears of a President or any other person, they are all the same, and should deserve the same level of attention.
We, the victims of Agent Orange, have seen tears streaming down our faces for dozens of years now. Every single day, we cry tears of pain, and even when the pain subsides, we cry tears of despair thinking about a grim future awaiting us, a future filled with endless suffering from this wicked poison.
There’s nothing we can do about it.
Our tears did not make chemical companies think twice about producing the dioxin that was dropped on Vietnam.
Our tears did not make those calling the shots in the U.S. government even consider thinking about the responsibilities they should face after causing such catastrophic consequences to innocent citizens.
I’ve never met you, Mr. President, yet I could see in you a sense of affability, of friendliness. You’re a responsible man, a loving father and husband, and a compassionate leader. You’ve always valued peace, friendliness, and equality.
Because of that, I wish you could come to my hometown Quang Nam someday, or to Quang Tri, Hue, Da Nang, and many other provinces here in Vietnam.
You’ll enjoy the beautiful scenery here, and you’ll get to meet wonderful, hard-working Vietnamese.
But you’ll also shake hands with those who have lost a limb, exchange a smile with those with cleft palates, all because of one decision made decades ago by your predecessors.
I’m sure you will shed a tear while doing so.
Victims of gun violence in America, like those suffering from the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, are human beings. All of them have their own families and friends, all share the right to live and to hope, instead of having their right taken away from them, or having to suffer both physically and mentally.
Even though I am a second-generation Agent Orange victim, I cannot fully describe the pain that has persisted through half a century. Only by witnessing it first-hand will you realize that your superpower of a nation needs to take responsibility for the suffering of each and every victim.
3.000.000 victims in Vietnam (200.000 of those are second-generation like me, 80.000 are third-generation, and in some places there have been reports of fourth-generation exposure) have been waiting for that a long time ago.
This beautiful country has gone through more than its fair share of pain and suffering from war. The people of Vietnam care for each other, we care for the lives of the unfortunate, but no matter how much we care, our circumstances will always prevent us from easing the pain, both materialistically and emotionally.
The victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam are always fighting, to rise above hardships, and make positive contributions to the community.
But we say that mainly to comfort ourselves and ease the pain, because it’s impossible to stay positive when every day you go out there, you see images of handicapped fathers and mothers with their exposed children, whose faces are barely recognizable, as they struggle through their daily dose of pain, pitying themselves and feeling left out.
Even so, I and other victims always have one thing on our mind: that is to leave the past behind, and look to the future. We are all happy to see you come to Vietnam, to see the two nations building new bridges to move closer to one another.
I understand that your schedule is packed, and that we are not part of your agenda. Yet, I hope that you and your fellow Americans will show compassion, to listen, to share, to care, and to sympathize with our pain, and later converting that into real action.
When the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn dismissed our lawsuit, millions of Agent Orange victims once again felt the pain. But we will not give up: the truth lies in the lives of those directly involved, those who have gone through endless sufferring; the truth lies in humanity’s conscience.
Women like me, dying to love and be loved, will never get to fulfill our vocation of motherhood. The poor little souls who have their lives taken away from them even before birth: those are the most bitter and painful truths.
When you visit Ho Chi Minh city, if you can, please take some time to drop by Peace Village Từ Dũ. You will undoubtedly be struck by images of dead fetuses stored in tubes. Then you’ll hear normal, little kids talk about their simple dreams in the most innocent ways possible. I’m sure the stark contrast will reduce someone with a warm heart like yours to tears.
I have left my hometown, leaving behind my ailing parents to listen to my heart. I’ve made sacrifices on my quest to pursue happiness, yet for the past 20 years, all I ever receive was one burning question: why can’t the Americans stand up and take responsibility for what they’ve done?
All these years, the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam have embarked on quests for justice to America, not to ask for pity, but to demand Americans to take responsibility for the serious consequences that their action has caused to the environment as well as the well-being of Vietnamese.
Mr. President, there are 3 things I can never afford.
I can’t afford a home, and always have to rely on others for shelter.
I can’t afford to love, for my disability and dire circumstances would prove too much for my significant other to bear.
I can’t afford to have a family. A long time ago, I’ve come to realize that I could never bear my own child. I could never have a child knowing full well that my kid will have to suffer.
The truth is evident, many scientists have spoken about the dangerous ramifications of dioxin, yet why are Americans still turning a blind eye?
As long as our heart still beats, we should know what pain feels like, we should know what it means to sympathize. Isn’t that right, Mr. President?
I have thought about this for a long time, and ultimately all I ever wanted was to find justice for all the victims of Agent Orange. Thus, I have reached a decision to donate my body for medical research.
American scientists as well as scientists from around the world can use my body as proof, to make Americans aware of the devastating consequences that their use of dioxin during the war has led to. Should that happen, I can die happy knowing that all my sacrifice would be worthwhile.
To Mr. Barack Obama, President of the United States of America,
I wish that this letter reaches you and all those Americans responsible. I also wish that Vietnamese and worldwide media would lend me an ear, listen to my story, and join me on this quest for justice. Don’t let us cry in desperation any longer.
Once again, best wishes to you, Mr. President, and your family.
Phạm Thị Nhí