Building a life of opportunity

DeWayne Bartels

Lily Phan’s desire to escape the crushing poverty and lack of freedom she lived under in Saigon, Vietnam, blinded her to the dangers of seeking a new life in America.

She dreamed of life in America while working long hours and tending to her dying mother in her communist-controlled country.

Fulfilling her dream would involve incredible sacrifice. Phan knew that. Still, she was willing to pay the price.

So, in 1982, with little more than a dream, Phan snuck out of Vietnam on a boat. She left her family behind. She was 14. 

From Malaysia, Phan eventually found her way to a family in Pekin.

That family helped Phan embark on what has been a 28-year journey to fulfill two dreams. It was fulfilled, in part, on Sunday in North Peoria when Phan opened the doors to Lily’s Nails at 9901 N. Knoxville.


Phan’s journey has not been an easy one.

Life in Saigon was hard, she said, to say the least. Phan was the youngest child and her mother was dying.

“It was terrible. My parents had a flea market. I had to help there and take care of my mother. I did all the cooking. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. We were very poor,” Phan said.

At her home, there was no running water. Getting water meant a trip to a well. The toilet was an outhouse.

“I had no friends. There was no time for friends. There was work and sleep. We got up at 2 or 3 a.m. and went to bed at 9 p.m.”

As crushing as the poverty was, Phan said, her disillusionment with life in Vietnam was intensified by the lack of freedom.

“You didn’t have freedom. It was very restrictive. You had to be careful what you say,” Phan said.

Her family had no TV, but on the way to or from the flea market, Phan said, she would sneak peeks at a better life on TV through the windows of those Vietnamese wealthy enough to have electricity and a TV. It fueled her desire to seek something better.

Then, a neighbor, with family who escaped to the U.S., began living better because their stateside family started sending them money.

“I said, ‘Wow, some day I go there and help out my family,’” she said.

She spoke in hushed terms about it to her family. Without her realizing it, that idea struck a chord with her father.

A path to freedom

“One day my dad say, ‘Do you want to go to America?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” Phan said.

The trip out of Vietnam cost $2,000.

One morning at 2 a.m., Phan and her father started out. They had to move with stealth. Soldiers were always on patrol looking for those seeking an escape.

“If we had been caught, we surely would have gone to jail,” Phan said.

The pair got to the boat.

“I left all on my own. He put me on the boat. I was on the boat three days,” Phan said.

“I was not scared. I was so desperate to leave.”

Looking back now, Phan said, she should have been afraid.

She knew the trip was dangerous. The people operating the boats were from Thailand.

She said they sometimes robbed their passengers and raped the women and would then kill them and dump their bodies in the water.

“We all prayed all the time on the boat. When I look back now it is scary. I can’t believe I did it.”

At the end of the journey was a refugee camp in Malaysia.

Life there was much better than the one she had left behind.

At the refugee camp, there was a program serving displaced minors.

“I was treated very nice. They taught us English and sewing. They fed us twice a day. Life was 10 times better. No one controlled us. We had no curfew,” Phan said.

“We had freedom, but still no money. But, we were provided for with food, clothes and skills.”

America bound

Phan spent two years in the refugee camp.

She eventually found her way to Catholic Social Services. All of a sudden, she was headed to America. She wound up at the Catholic Social Services Home on Heading Avenue in Peoria.

She finally realized her dream.

She made friends and waited for placement with a foster family.

She was 16, knew little English and had no tolerance for American food. 

The first family she was placed with was in Rushville. She was not happy there. She had become good friends with a girl at the Heading Avenue facility.

That girl had gone to the home of Brenda Franklin in Pekin.

“I had two boys through Catholic Social Services. Their sister came to live with us and Lily was her girlfriend,” Franklin said.

“When they placed the boys’ sister with me, the girls were split up.”

Franklin said Phan would call constantly begging her to take her in. The social service agency’s rules, however, did not allow placement of a non-family girl in the house with two boys.

Still Phan persisted and Franklin worked to get her.

“Finally, I convinced Catholic Social Services it would be OK,” Franklin said.

Franklin said she knew what to expect when the girls arrived, a luxury not afforded to her when the boys had arrived years earlier.

The boys, she said, knew nothing about life in America. She recalled the first time she sent one of the boys to take a shower. She heard the water running but the boy was in there a long time.

“Finally, I knocked on the door and went in to check on him. He was in the shower allright. He had all his clothes on,” she said.

Franklin said while the girls seemed to enjoy their new-found freedom, they did not act like typical American teens.

“Both girls were very attuned to domestic life. It was their culture. They were very helpful, good kids,” Franklin said. “They understood yes and no. Lily was a typical teen in some ways. She liked music, but she was very much a homebody.”

Dream realized

Phan is now 41, married, has a family and has become a business owner.

Franklin said she is amazed by how much Phan has changed from the shy teen she cared for.

“She’s become very sure of herself, very independent,” Franklin said.

Phan said she has realized The American Dream.

But, The American Dream is not the only dream Phan has realized. She went back to Vietnam a few years ago.

“It brought back how hard my life was. I saw how poor everyone was,” Phan said. “There was still no ability to go to school, no opportunity.”

Phan said it made her realize how lucky she is to be living The American Dream.

“I have a house, a family, opportunity, water, electricity and, most important, freedom,” Phan said. 

She has realized a dream that dates back to her youth and the reason she wanted to get to America.

“I’m taking care of my family back in Vietnam. I support my brother and sister,” Phan said. “That’s why I came here.”