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Blast San Francisco Bureau

As I slept, my oldest brother kissed me lightly on the cheek and vanished into the night with my three other brothers. It was 1978 and my four brothers were fleeing Vietnam in search of a better future in America. I remember mother telling me that my they had gone to the city seeking work. I had no idea my brothers were secretly stowed away on a tiny fishing boat. I was three years old and too young to understand the risk and danger involved in the journey to the United States. Their main motivation: free dom.

Life was unbearable under the Viet Cong. My parents saw no future staying in the Communist-run, war-torn country. My brothers -- all in their teens -- were subject to mandatory military enrollment. Not wanting any of their children to work for the Viet Co ng, my parents forced my brothers to depart for America.

That night they walked half a mile to the harbor, where the fishing boat waited for them. They were fearful because they would have been imprisoned if caught. When they reached the harbor, they -- along with 32 others -- jammed into a small, dark and sti nky storage room at the boat's bottom. They were hidden there for two days until the ship passed Vietnam's jurisdiction.

"When we were outside, it was extremely nice," Long, my oldest brother, recalled. "Sometimes we saw dolphins swimming along side the boat. But when we went for weeks without seeing land, we were extremely scared and helpless."

Their goal was to reach Thailand. There, family in the U.S. could sponsor them over to America.

When my brothers almost reached Thailand, the nice view and calmness of the sea was interrupted when pirates boarded the boat. The buffed, tanned pirates -- wearing only shorts -- had yellow-colored hair, probably because of their daily bathing in salt water, Long said. "They didn't have the typical image of pirates with one eye or torn clothing. They did carry knives and swords with them."

The pirates searched each person and stole all the gold.

Days later, another pirate ship attacked the boat. They demanded gold and when they found none, they went berzerk. They rounded up the men, pushed them overboard and raped the women, Long said.

Some men who couldn't swim drowned. My youngest brother, 12-year-old Daniel, couldn't swim, but luckily, he wasn't pushed overboard. After what seemed like an eternity, the men were allowed back onto the boat. The women wept. Their clothes were torn. Some committed suicide by jumping off the boat because they had lost their virginity. In Vietnam, women who lose their virginity before marriage were considered disgraced. No men would marry them because they would be laughed at and looked down upon.

It wasn't over. Pirates boarded the ship two more times: The men battered, the women raped.

Finally, the rickety old boat landed in Thailand, where the remaining passengers were thrown into a heavily guarded refugee camp.

"They didn't make us work. They gave us limited amount of food and water," Long said. "We wrote letters home and to relatives in Taiwan and the U.S. for money. Once we got some money, I sneaked out to buy food."

Long scaled the 10-foot high fences in search of better food for him and his brothers. One time, he was caught leaving camp. The guard "screamed at me and struck me in the lower back with his rifle in one hand and the baton in the other," he said. "I fell to the sand and he continued striking me. After, he walked me back into my sleeping quarters at gun point. My back was bruised for weeks."

After one year at the refugee camp, my aunt in San Francisco was allowed to sponsor them into the United States. My brothers lived in a dingy Tenderloin apartment. They worked in the mornings and attended City College of San Francisco at night. Long found a job as a dishwasher in a Marina District restaurant. After three long years, my brothers were able to sponsor the rest of the family to America through the family reunification law.

When my family came to America in 1982, we were barehanded and penniless. My family of 13 people lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Eddy Street. There was only one bed in the whole apartment and it was reserved for my grandmother. The rest of us -- my parents, sisters, brothers and I -- slept on the carpet in single file from the kitchen to the living room.

My parents were in their 50s. They could not speak or understand English. And they couldn't find work. They signed up for welfare, but were rejected. Even relatives refused to loan us money. My parents were devastated and desperate. My dad nearly committed suicide.

Luckily, 4 1/2 months later, my brother found a job at an Italian restaurant. He worked as a custodian from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and as a dishwasher from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. He was paid $4.25 an hour -- minimum wage. My mom worked in a sewing factory and was paid 50 cents a garment.

One brother, who is two years older than me, woke up at 5 a.m. to help my dad clean the restaurant when he was 13 years old. He cleaned until 8 a.m. and took the bus to school. On the nights he didn't have homework, he helped my father wash dishes. The restaurant owner hired my brother when my brother turned 15. He worked weekdays and weekends. Seeing him sacrifice his time to help my dad showed me his desire to help the family and inspired me to do the same.

Through hard work and unity, my family has achieved our American dream: We purchased a house in San Francisco's Sunset District and now own a restaurant in the same neighborhood.

I am now a full time student at San Francisco State University and work three part-time jobs. Like my father and my older siblings, I now give my paychecks to my mother to help pay for family expenses. Growing up poor has helped shape the hard-working person I am today.