“I AM NUMBER 4”
By Boa Newgate
My name is Boa D. Newgate. I am the Lead Manager for the Mental Health Cultural Case Management Program at the Southeast Asian Coalition (SEAC) since 2008. I also oversee SEAC’s Youth Effect program, initiated its Vietnamese Language program and co-founded its Lion Dance program. In 2015, I was given the YWCA Best Guy Award for my contributions towards the prevention of domestic violence, my active support for equal rights and dedication to empowering youth, women and minorities. In 2017, I received the Community Hero award from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission.
However, before I created my name and my identity, before I became the person that I am now, I was known as “Number 4.”
My father was in the military, and he was a casualty of the Vietnam War. He was badly wounded from the waist down and was not able to walk.
When my parents had no choice but to leave behind our home, our family and friends, and everything we love in order to stay alive, my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother.
My mother witnessed her grandparents taking their own lives because they did not want to die under the hands of the enemies. Yet with the strength I did not know a human being could possess, my mother carried me in one arm, my father in the other, and she brought us to a refugee camp in Thailand.
We lost all of the records that proved we existed, but we were able to save our lives.
The photo (above) was taken in the refugee camp and it is my only childhood picture. In the picture, there is a little boy holding a number four next to his family. That little boy is me. Without the records, my identity was lost; I did not have a home and I did not belong to any country. My mother was, and still is, too traumatized by the experience to remember the month or year I was born. I felt like an outcast, and as I grew up in the refugee camp, I felt as if I was a prisoner, trapped with no control and no choice. The barbed wire fence isolated my family, and other refugees, from civilization.
It served as a painful reminder of the identities we no longer had, of the status and the rights that had been stripped from us. Its presence, day after day without failing, made fun of our bareness, of our nothingness.
I was too young to truly understand the suffering my family was going through. We lived in a house made of bamboo. On windy days, we could feel the wind force its way through the house.
When it rained, the dirt floor would become muddy. The overwhelming smell of dirt, mixed with the smell of garbage that was originally there, clung to me for days. It felt as if the smell had ingrained itself in my pores and no amount of washing and scrubbing could get rid of it.
We often could not afford the necessities for our everyday life. I had to gather ice cream sticks that were thrown away by other more affluent families so we could make fire.
My eyes were often glued to the ground to look for things other people might have dropped.
On most days, our meals consisted of rice porridge because all we had were rice and water, and it often was not enough for the whole family. My parents starved themselves so my brothers and I would have enough to eat.
My older brother resorted to stealing from the stores in the camp and endured countless beatings as a result. He also sneaked out of the camp to steal food for the family. What my brother did, in those moments, taught me to not wait for the world to give me it’s approval, to not wait for a hero to appear, but to become my own hero.
What my brother did might have been lawfully wrong, but if not for him, we would not be here today; we owe him our existences . He is my hero. My family instinct was just to survive, to see each other tomorrow, and it was my only instinct, too.
Thinking back, I wonder whether those days were days spent in heaven or in hell?
I do not have an answer for this, but those days have given me a curse that is also my blessing: my memories. They have taught me that every negative experience has something positive to offer. I have learned to love and cherish every moment differently. Most important, I have learned how to measure my success and my accomplishments with a different standard.
Boa works at SEAC – the South East Asian Coalition – in Worcester where he helps Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese-Americans thrive in America! His focus: physical activity/exercise, education, counseling …
I have come to realize that I was lucky to survive the given circumstance and situation. I am lucky to be alive! I will not waste my life. I love myself and I owe it to myself to be smart, healthy and happy.
Before I did not have a choice, now I will create my own heaven, I will not wait for it.
SEAC’s Youth Effect program was started in Worcester in 1999 with a mission to keep youth in schools, off the streets and away from gangs.
Since then, the SEAC youth program provides services from academic tutoring to physical fitness activities, college preparation and the Lion Dance program to more than 100 Asian youths, and 3,000 youth visits every year. The program enjoys immense success (in the last few years, 100% high school graduation, more than 90% of our kids pursue higher education, our youth had an award winning Lion Dance team and more than 3,000 hours of civic and community volunteering by us. This has all given me a vision – to bring Youth Effect overseas – thus the Youth Effect International was born.
As my new identity and my new life began at a refugee camp, I want to go back to the refugee camps, to my roots, to help people in need. In March 2017, I traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines and distributed school supplies to hundreds of poor children and street kids.
Via my vision, SEAC hopes to fund-raise and organize one trip to Asia each year to continue supporting children in poor villages in Asia with school supplies, hope and encouragement.
To help, to make a donation, or for more information, please visit www.seacma.org