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Photo Comes To Life

The world did not know her name, but it could never forget her face.

Kim Phuc Phan Thi was the little girl, her arms outstretched, running naked and screaming,  down a dirt road, in Vietnam, in 1972, fire and the war raging behind her. The picture by AP photographer Nick Ut shocked the world, and helped turn the tide of public opinion in the U.S. against the Vietnam war.

Last week, Kim Phuc was at Friends Academy, in Locust Valley, talking about her experiences, her life, and the message of hope and peace she carries around the world as a a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO, a position she took in 1996.

Using a poster she created, Kim Phuc told the story of her journey from a terrified nine year old to a gentle and charismatic woman who is working to make the world a safer place. The bottom half of the poster contains the iconic photograph by Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his picture.  

“I saw the airplanes when I ran out of the temple where we had sought shelter,” she told the audience. “I saw four bombs and suddenly there was fire everywhere around me.”

Sixty-five percent of her body was burned by the napalm.

Ut took her to a hospital and eventually she was sent to another hospital where she spent 14 months in rehabilitation. Based on that experience, she decided to study to be a doctor and ten years later she was a student at a university in  what is now Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. But it was not to be. The Vietnamese government, finding out she was alive, used her for propaganda and cut short her education. She says that the emotional pain of not being able to realize her dream was worse than the physical pain.

In 1992 she sought asylum in Canada and today is a Canadian citizen, married and with two sons, Thomas, 18, and Steven 15.

The top half of the poster is a photo of Kim Phuc whispering into baby Thomas’ ear. “I have to let him know what happened,” she said, noting that as he is listening, he is looking forward to the future. The scaring on her shoulders from the fire is visible; she still suffers a great deal of pain.  

She says her goal is to let people know the horrors of war and also to bring her vision of the beautiful world that could happen if we lived with love.

Kim Phuc does more than talk. She is the founder of The Kim Foundation International, a non-profit that seeks to heal the wounds suffered by children during war and to restore hope and happiness by providing medical and psychological assistance. The foundation supports projects such as a refugee camp in Tajikistan and a hospital for mothers and children in northern Uganda.

“We can’t change the past,” she said, “but with love, we can heal the future.”