TORONTO – The decades-old scars on her body raise questions, but Ayesha Bharmal isn’t sure she wants the answers.
All she knows is that she suffered them as a baby in Vietnam when she was abandoned at an orphanage amid a chaotic war in the 1970s.
She suspects they are signs of early abuse, noting that those who’ve seen them suggest they were caused by a knife.
But Bharmal doesn’t linger on dark thoughts, saying she prefers to focus on the rescue mission that brought her and dozens of other children to Canada for adoption.
“I know there are horror stories about how the children were destroyed … horrifying,” says Bharmal, who guesses from her features that she was the child of a black U.S. soldier.
“I’m very grateful.”
Bharmal was among some 3,000 children scooped up by various rescue flights during the final days of the Vietnam War, 40 years ago this month.
In the weeks preceding the fall of Saigon, conditions deteriorated rapidly as Communist forces from North Vietnam closed in on South Vietnam’s capital, now Ho Chi Minh City.
Panicked people fled the country any way they could – swarming airports and famously taking to the sea in overcrowded fishing boats or even makeshift crafts.
Among those left behind were an estimated 70,000 orphans.
Operation Babylift – announced by then-U.S. president Gerald Ford – was put into urgent motion in early April 1975.
Dozens of flights carried children to new homes in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.
That included two flights to Canada – one landed in Montreal, another in Toronto. They are believed to have carried more than 100 children in total, ranging in age from about three months to nine years, says fellow refugee Thanh Campbell, author of “Orphan 32.”
But not all made it out safely.
One of the first U.S. flights crashed soon after takeoff, killing 135 on board, including 93 of 247 orphans, according to an Associated Press story about a subsequent lawsuit.
Back in the Bharmal family living room, Ayesha counts herself lucky for being on a flight that made it to Hong Kong. From there, she and the other children made the long journey to Vancouver, and then Toronto.
Seated on a couch between her parents Shiraz and Nurjehan Bharmal, Ayesha flips through a photo album chronicling most of her 41 years.
Gesturing to a picture of a smiling girl in a yellow dress, her parents can’t help but remark how skinny Ayesha was. They were told she was about 20 months old, but they didn’t believe it.
“She was very small, you can see how thin her arms are,” says Nurjehan. “She only weighed 12 pounds or something. But it didn’t take long for her to sort of bloom.”
A document listed her name as Thi Diep Nguyen.
Preferring a Muslim name in keeping with the family, Shiraz and Nurjehan named her Ayesha Fatima Bharmal. Older brothers Jameel and Aleem reluctantly welcomed their new sister.
At the same time, the Bharmals helped to sponsor a family from Vietnam, among the first waves of so-called “boat people.”
“We were very concerned about the war…. But we were very impressed that the government would sponsor the plane and bring the kids over,” says Bharmal, who, like his wife, is an Ismaili Muslim born in Tanzania to parents of Indian heritage.
“They could have done more, I think. They could have done much more and brought many more Vietnamese down here but I suppose something is better than nothing.”
Fierce critics, however, have argued the children would have been better left in their own country, and questioned whether all of them were truly orphans.
Adjusting to life in small-town Ontario wasn’t easy for David Jonathan Truong Hobson, who says he struggled as “the only Asian kid” while growing up in Madoc.
He recalls being taunted and bullied. In Grade 10 he rebelled by refusing to stand and sing the national anthem.
Hobson says he felt rejected by Canada, but at the same time, had little incentive to connect with his Vietnamese heritage.
“All my life I felt that I was white,” says Hobson, who was adopted by a Malaysian mother and French-Canadian father, joining three adopted siblings who were half-Japanese and Caucasian.
“The only time I could see that I was Asian was when I looked in the mirror.”
He moved to Vancouver in 1992 for university, finally discovering other Asian-Canadians who looked like him. He settled in Langley, B.C., with his common-law wife and newborn son, Jonathan David Truong Hobson.
Questions remain about his origins – one of Hobsons’s documents said he was named Vantot Guise Nguyen. He was born in either 1971, 1972 or 1975.
He didn’t formally receive a birthdate until his parents took him to Ottawa to apply for a passport when he was nine. In applying for the document, his father chose a birthday for him – May 24, 1974, partly based on doctors’ estimates, partly in honour of Queen Victoria.
Such stories are common, says Campbell, who has dedicated his life to connecting fellow refugees and sharing their stories.
Although each orphan arrived with identity papers, many were hastily pulled together to satisfy basic travel requirements, he says.
Campbell found his first fellow orphan by chance in 2003, while speaking about his life at a church in Sarnia, Ont. A family there connected him with a Vietnam orphan they knew – Trent Kilner, now of St. Catharines, Ont.
Since then, Campbell says he’s found 47 of 57 orphans on his flight. Many stayed in Ontario, but others have dispersed – from Alberta to Gibraltar to Australia.
“They’re the closest thing to family that I thought I was going to be able to find,” says Campbell.
“Finding Trent was amazing – for me it was the first time I was meeting someone who really understood what it was like … coming to Canada in the way we did, and growing up in Canada in a Canadian family. Not really fitting in one world, definitely not fitting in the Asian community because we lost our culture. We lost our language, so we didn’t really fit anywhere. But now we kind of fit with each other.”
Kilner would go on to make his own unique connection – with fellow orphan Lia Pouli, who was also on that flight out of Saigon. They met in 2005 and began dating a few months later. They married in 2008 and now have three kids.
In 2006, Campbell and Kilner hosted a reunion for Ontario adoptees in Oakville, Ont. By then, they had reached 42 orphans. The gala included adoptive parents, the orphans’ children and some of the pilots, nurses and doctors who were part of the evacuation.
Campbell, who was adopted by Rev. William and Maureen Campbell and was the youngest of six children, recalls telling the packed room: “We don’t go a day in our life without thinking about how we got here.”
Still, he notes some orphans remain less willing to revisit the past.
“Their Canadian life is their Canadian life,” Campbell notes. “They’ve kind of somewhat moved on and they don’t want to identify themselves necessarily all the time as a war orphan or an adoptee.”
But because Campbell embraced it wholeheartedly, he discovered a family he never thought he had.
More than 30 years after leaving Vietnam, Campbell learned his parents never intended to give him up, and that he was taken from a Catholic orphanage by mistake.
His parents had worked for the U.S. military and would leave him and his two brothers in the care of the nuns. When they returned, he was gone and they were told he went “to America.”
Campbell learned that his mother died in his father’s arms in 1987.
“Her last words to my father were: ‘Keep looking for Thanh. Keep looking for our baby. Never give up, never give up.”’
In 2006, reports of a reunion of Vietnamese war orphans in Ontario spread to Vietnam. A man purporting to be his younger brother contacted Campbell, saying his father believed they were related. A DNA test confirmed it in January 2007.
“I was dumbfounded,” Campbell says. “I’m like, how is that possible?”
It’s the kind of story that gives hope to other orphans wondering if they have family in Vietnam.
Bharmal says she’s not one of them, regarding any deep investigation into her origins as “a can of worms.”
“Do I want to bring that back?” she asks, noting she’s glad she was too young to remember life in Vietnam. “Right now I might have blocked it out just because of whatever it was. There’s a lot of ifs.”
Still, Campbell hopes to convince fellow orphans to make the trek to Vietnam with him for the 50th anniversary in 2025.
He notes that a U.S. organization organized a trip for the 40th, but few Canadians joined them.
“In some way the 40th anniversary came and went,” Campbell laments, urging those interested to contact him by email at thanhborphan32.com.
“We missed the train on this one. The 50th, we’re not going to let it go by. We’re going to do everything we can to try and get as many of us there and have a pretty good contingency.”