When An Phong Vo was nine years old, her family fled Vietnam and was resettled in Texas. The year was 1992. Nineteen years later, she's teaching Vietnamese and Bible study and taking up the cause of refugees and victims of human trafficking.
Vo came to America because she and her family were considered temporary residents in Vietnam who lacked basic rights of ownership and privacy. "The police could come ransack our home at any time," she told The Huffington Post. "There are people in this situation in many countries -- their rights and dignity are being trampled upon."
Her family escaped Vietnam by boat and was rescued at sea three days later. From there, Vo spent three and a half years in the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia. Eventually her family was interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and was recommended for resettlement in the United States.
Vo is heading to Thailand on behalf of Boat People SOS, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting Vietnamese people aiming to seek asylum status or emigrate from nations in which they are persecuted.
She's making the move alone, and she admitted that her mother and others are concerned, but she's determined: "Many are worried for me, but for me going along is an opportunity -- as a refugee survivor myself, I see being able to be on the other side and help as a miracle."
Vo will be in Asia for an undetermined length of time and has prepared to spend at least a year on her personal mission. She hopes to get the governments of Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia to commit to enhancing and enforcing human trafficking laws. She will be based in Bangkok and will work with various nonprofits and civil society organizations to assist refugees in applying for and obtaining asylum, while also focusing on trafficking on a policy level.
"In Thailand there are a lot of urban refugees, which means that these people are not living in camps -- they're living underground, illegally," Vo explained. "They're living in a self-imposed exile of sorts, where they can't leave their rooms for fear of being arrested and held in detention centers."
Vo will also be working with the Coalition to Abolish Modern Day Slavery (CAMSA).
As for human trafficking, Vo said that, for some Asian countries, fighting trafficking has not been as high of a priority as it should. "Taiwan has been fantastic in trying to get their act together when it comes to trafficking, but Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are on the Tier 2 watchlist [as ranked by a State Department report]," Vo said. "That means they're trying to do something but they're not there yet. This year is crucial because if they don't improve, they may be put on Tier 3, which is the lowest tier."
Prior to heading overseas, Vo was a part of the first ever Refugee Congress at the Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. The experience, she said, was simply amazing: "I delayed my trip to Thailand to attend the congress and it was great to be able to meet with our elected officials and draft a proclamation to present to them and UNHCR in Geneva -- it's just thrilling to see that UNHCR is soliciting input from former refugees."
Vo is confident and extremely articulate, but it is perhaps her humility which is most striking. "The work we're doing is an important beginning," she said. "But this is all still new and in the long run [programs like the Refugee Congress] will prove very beneficial."
"I was shocked that [The Huffington Post] wanted to feature my work," she added quickly. "The real heroes are the people who are surviving as refugees every day."