LAKELAND -- The summer of 1980, Lauren Vuong survived a hurricane-like storm at sea aboard a rickety fishing boat carrying her family and dozens of other Vietnamese desperate to escape the brutality of ongoing war and harsh, communist rule.
They came to be known as the boat people, those who survived the exodus triggered by the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Vuong, then 7, was one of 62 refugees hiding in the fish-laden cargo hold of a vessel some 30 feet in length.
Vuong's journey has parallels with the ongoing crisis in Syria and other war-torn locales.
Now 43 and married with children and working as a workers compensation litigator in California, she harbors a message of hope to all foreigners seeking refuge.
Captain found in Lakeland
Her own rescue after 10 days at sea served as inspiration to seek out those responsible. Research led her to 86-year-old George Overstreet of Lakeland, a retired captain of the LNG Virgo, a merchant marine tanker that ferried liquefied natural gas throughout the South China Sea.
Overstreet was on leave when his shipmates discovered the boat carrying Vuong, her parents and siblings. It didn't matter. She felt she had to meet him face to face, despite 36 years of distance. She flew to Lakeland from San Francisco in March, her parents, children and husband in tow.
It was, she said, more quest than reunion.
"It felt like the journey was incomplete without being able to look at our saviors' eyes, meet their family and tell them in person what it means to have a second chance at life," she said through tears.
The dream of a second chance remains alive for hundreds of families from far-flung locales who are assimilated throughout Central Florida each year with help from a network of agencies that includes Catholic Charities.
An average of 180 families, mostly from African nations, along with Iraq and Myanmar, are resettled annually in the greater Orlando area, with Lakeland taking in a handful of Cubans. Many have the support of relatives or friends who already are settled here, said Richard Logue, program director of Immigration and Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of Central Florida.
Despite a rigorous vetting process, Syrians still face a roadblock to entering the United States because of concerns about terrorism, Logue said.
Iraqi refugees who make it through the vetting process are primarily people who worked with the U.S. military, he said.
It was the exodus of Vietnamese in 1975 that initiated Catholic Charities' involvement in refugee resettlement. Logue said Lauren Vuong and her family were among the lucky ones to overcome great obstacles in their journey to America.
In her memoir that she hopes to turn into a documentary on the Vietnamese boat people, Vuong writes of the excitement she felt upon finding Overstreet with the help of Google.
Just wanted to say thanks
"I didn't even know if he was the correct person. I hadn't planned what to say. I just spoke into the machine" and left a message: "Hello Capt. Overstreet. My name is Lauren Vuong. You don't know me, but I think you rescued my family from the South China Sea in 1980. I don't want anything except to say thank you for saving our lives."
Overstreet did more than return the call -- he and his wife, Alice, invited Vuong and her family to spend the week at their south Lakeland home.
Overstreet, a retired Naval commander who spent 20 years in the Merchant Marine, also led Vuong to Douglas Torborg of Miami, who was captain of the USNS Sealift Antarctic. Toborg's craft took possession of Vuong and her fellow passengers after being turned away by Philippines authorities under the Virgo's escort.
The Philippines was the refugees' original destination. Blown off course by a severe storm, a trip that was supposed to take seven days stretched to 10. At the time of their rescue, they were nearly out of fuel, food and water, said Overstreet, who was involved in two other pickups at sea, which was commonplace at the time.
Vuong's father, 71-year-old Thiem H. Vuong, had been an artillery captain in the South Vietnamese Army, an ally of the United States. After losing to the communist forces of the North, he was imprisoned in a re-education camp for four years before his wife, Mai Tran, was able to arrange his release with a monetary bribe.
She and other wives of imprisoned officers arranged their escape, Overstreet said. "She did all the negotiation to get him out of prison camp. The wives got the boat; the men were emaciated after getting out of prison. She organized it and pushed it through and kept it together."
Once aboard the Antarctic, Vuong and her family were carried to Singapore, then to Indonesia and finally to San Jose, Calif., arriving Nov. 28, 1980, some six months after leaving their homeland.
Aided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the family started life anew.
Vuong's father worked as an agricultural sprayer by day. Her mother cleaned houses. At night they studied English, and in 1991 they became U.S. citizens.
Many ships didn't help
Lauren Vuong said that the stories passed down from her parents and other refugees noted that dozens of ships passed their vessel on the open sea without offering aid of any kind.
She's in tune with the refugee crisis in the Middle East, and says she hopes the victims find the sort of compassion that saved her and her loved ones in their hour of need.
"When people flee their country with nothing but the shirts on their backs and the hope they can make a new life, it's hard to turn that away," she said. "If you get nothing else from talking to me, please get this part: The life that I have today, someone like George (Overstreet) said, 'Rescue these people.' That's not nothing. ... You never know where compassion will lead. It has a long-term rippling effect that's positive."