Couple's odyssey an American story

Staff WriterDecember 21, 2008 

  • The Montagnards are a cultural minority indigenous to the central highlands of Vietnam. They opposed the communist takeover of Vietnam, and worked with American soldiers during the Vietnam War. After the war ended with the triumph of a Communist regime in 1975, the Montagnards were persecuted and forced off their land. A resistance movement formed, and many young Montagnard men began fighting a guerrilla war against the government in the jungle. Many Montagnards eventually fled into Cambodia and then into Thailand, where they became refugees. Several hundred Montagnard families were resettled in North Carolina, and the state is now home to the largest community of Montagnards outside Vietnam.

— The couple kneeling before the altar looked like newlyweds -- she in a sparkling white gown, he in a crisp suit.

But the two who exchanged rings at St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Saturday were renewing vows made 25 years ago in the jungles of Cambodia. Neither has seen their homeland, in the central highlands of Vietnam, since it fell under Communist rule in 1975.

H'Yoanh and Y-Jim Buonya, like many Vietnamese Montagnards forced from their villages, spent nearly 12 years on the run in the jungles of Southeast Asia before coming to North Carolina as refugees in 1986. Then, they fought their way up from the lowest levels of America's economic ladder, struggling with limited education to learn English and support five children.

Along the way, they found a new home in Raleigh.

"We were so lucky when we came here," Jim says.

"We just feel like this is the place where we're meant to be," Yoanh says.

They go by the more Americanized forms of their names.

Now in their 50s, both still work in factories and live in a modest home in Southeast Raleigh. But their children are realizing the dreams that were out of their parents' reach.

Their eldest, Anna, 23, born on the jungle floor in Thailand, started law school this year at Elon University. Their second daughter, Vivian, is a student at UNC-Greensboro, and their son, Y-Jimson, recently graduated from high school.

"I don't have a lot of patience for people in America who sit around and whine, because this family has shown me what can be done," said Harriet Hill, a longtime friend and supporter of the Buonyas. "And they never complained. They were just happy to be here."

Anna first suggested that her parents mark their 25th anniversary with a church blessing.

They are devout Catholics, and it is customary to renew vows on major anniversaries.

Anna said she thought the family would go to church and eat dinner in a restaurant. But as the weeks passed, she said, her mother began suggesting other guests -- the Montagnards who lived with them in the jungles and made the journey to Raleigh with them, the Americans who helped build their house and became godparents to their children.

Anna said she realized she had a full-scale wedding on her hands when her mother called her a few days after Thanksgiving. "She said, 'I just got a wedding dress.'"

Tradition followed

On Saturday, Yoanh and Jim walked down the aisle side by side, while nearly 100 people watched. Most were Montagnards, some wearing their culture's traditional striped and spangled dress. The hymns of their native land swelled in the sanctuary. Their children, carrying sprigs of hydrangea, formed their wedding party.

None of this would have been possible in Vietnam, where Montagnard churches have been closed and their language and traditions systematically erased. Many Montagnards in Vietnam have been forced into servitude.

But here, in their adopted home, Yoanh wore a tiara and train.

"This moment is so momentous," said Monsignor John Williams, the pastor at St. Joseph's, "that all we can do is for a moment be silent in thanksgiving to God."

Yoanh emerged from the ceremony tear-streaked, but smiling.

Cambodia meeting

The Buonyas met in a stark camp in Cambodia, where a group of Montagnard resistance fighters lived in the early 1980s.

Jim was a soldier who had left his village at 19 to fight a guerrilla war in the jungle. Like many young Montagnards, he had hopes of saving his ancestral land from an oppressive government.

The Montagnards angered the government by helping American soldiers during the Vietnam War, and thousands were slaughtered.

Yoanh was a naive young girl who traveled with the soldiers, cooking meals, sewing clothes and tending the sick. She had left her village hoping to find a place where she could go to school. Instead, she became a witness to years of warfare.

Romance blossomed in the most unlikely circumstances.

They lived in a crowded camp, surrounded by land mines. Their leaders, who did not allow soldiers to marry, forced them to keep their courtship secret.

"It's not an easy life, but somehow the force of love is different," Jim says.

Yoanh says nothing could have stopped her from falling in love with the quiet man with the shy smile, who often arrived late for dinner after long days tending subsistence crops. He never complained when he found the food gone. She began saving his share.

Once they persuaded their leaders to allow them to marry, they signed a slip of paper and their marriage was complete.

Jim built their first home -- a bamboo hut covered with leaves.

A few months later, bombs rained down and tanks rolled over the mountainsides, and they fled into the mountains of Thailand. They walked for weeks, afraid to stop for long. Yoanh was pregnant.

They set up a makeshift camp at the edge of a jungle in Thailand. Anna was born there without doctors, medicine or clean water. Jim cut the cord with a length of sharpened bamboo.

New land, new life

The Buonyas eventually made their way to a refugee camp and from there to the U.S. They arrived at the airport in Greensboro in November 1986, Yoanh pregnant with their second child, and were driven to an apartment in Garner.

They spent the first night listening to the heater cycling on and off. "I didn't know what it was," Yoanh remembers. "I thought that the Communists were still fighting me."

The couple worked hard to learn English, and they soon settled into a routine.

Jim went to class in the morning, eventually earning a two-year engineering degree at Wake Tech. He worked second shift at a seafood processing plant, then went to another job cleaning offices.

Yoanh tended their growing family and took occasional work in factories or cleaning houses.

Life in a place so foreign was rife with indignities. Anna remembers her father being pelted with eggs as he rode his bike to work.

But they were also beneficiaries of extraordinary generosity.

In 1989, Habitat for Humanity built them a house. People brought Christmas presents to the children and took them on weekly outings to the library. They ferried the family to church. They gave Yoanh private English lessons.

"If they are taking part in the American dream, then it's American citizens who gave them the welcome and encouragement to get there," said Williams, the St. Joseph's pastor.

The Buonyas, both U.S. citizens now, agree.

On Saturday, they stood in the church's reception hall eating wedding cake, sipping cider and giving thanks -- for a marriage that survived war and dislocation, children who will surpass their parents, friends who extended a hand when they needed it most, and faith that has weathered it all.

kristin.collins@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4881

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service