“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.” Kim Phuc Phan Thi, on National Public Radio in 2008 Words by Laura Schober Photography by Nick Ut, Anne Bayin and Dave Merrow
“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.” Kim Phuc Phan Thi
South Vietnam June 8 1972; the bombers didn’t harmlessly fly over the small village as before, this morning they circled and disgorged their heinous cargo and destroyed the village below.
But they couldn’t destroy the girl in the picture. Kim Phuc Phan Thi was nine years old the day South Vietnamese forces mistakenly executed an air strike over her village and bombed her home and all the others, killing and injuring innocent civilians. The napalm that landed on Kim Phuc’s clothing burned it all off as she ran away and continued burning right through her skin and down to the bone. Her agony and innocence were forever captured in a photograph that symbolized the horrors of the Vietnam War and appeared on front pages around the world. It hardened global opinion against the war and is widely considered the most powerful political photograph in history.
After the war Kim Phuc’s fame made her an appealing propaganda tool for the new communist government of the reunified Vietnam. She grew past her pain to become an outstanding student choosing to study medicine in Cuba where she met and married fellow Vietnamese student Toan. They both had become disenchanted with life under Communist rule. In 1992 after their honeymoon in Moscow, flying home to Cuba, their plane landed in Gander Newfoundland to refuel. Once on the ground, Kim and Toan bolted from the airport with only the phone number of a friendly Canadian and a prayer that they could defect. The Canadian helped them find a place to live in Ontario and the government allowed them to stay. Eventually the couple settled in Ajax.
Five years later, Kim Phuc was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and is still sent around the world to do speaking engagements to share her story. She has come to fully embrace her reputation as the “girl in the picture” because it allows her to share her message of peace, love, and forgiveness, both for the United Nations and for the Kim Phuc Foundation. However at age 47, Kim Phuc suffers constantly from the damage done so many years ago. The pain has only deepened with age and so the international travel – approximately 40 trips a year – takes its toll on her health and this is where her dear friend and manager, Liesa, comes into the story.
“This is where I feel I can play an integral role because I’m witnessing that she is in excruciating pain… and she still will go do her thing.” A prominent Clarkson community volunteer, Liesa Cianchino, is dedicated to getting her friend and only ‘client’ Kim Phuc more opportunities to speak and contribute in Canada in order to save the travel wear and tear, while allowing Kim Phuc more time with her teenaged sons and husband at home.
“We cannot change history, but with love we can heal the future.” Kim Phuc Phan Thi
When Liesa met Kim Phuc at a “Women of Courage” luncheon, an instant connection was sparked when both women discovered they had much in common: a shared faith in God, devotion to family life, and a passion for women and children’s rights. Kim Phuc was running the Kim Phuc Foundation, a Canadian charity that builds hospitals, clinics, and schools for children in developing countries. Liesa Cianchino was working at Armagh, a shelter for abused women and children in Mississauga.
When asked what bonded these two self-described “soul-mates,” they break into bright, beaming smiles that could light up a room.
“Like…chemicals,” Phuc says snapping her fingers. “We stuck together,” Kim Phuc continues. “We fell in love.”
“Oh, we fell in love! We’re together Kim, now we have to give each other rings!” exclaims Liesa before the two women break into infectious laughter. Growing up in comfortable Oakville, Liesa and her three siblings were raised in a very caring and loving household. Her father worked at the Ford Motor Company his entire career. And in life he always sought to be a Good Samaritan who helped his friends and neighbours. Liesa followed suit and fondly remembers her father calling her “his little Mother Teresa” for her naturally giving and cheerful nature.
“When I was in high school…even though I was with people who were outgoing like I was, I seemed to always go to those that were left behind. There was something there,” says Liesa.
At 19, Liesa married her husband, Enzo, who works in the construction industry. They moved to Mississauga in 1979, where Enzo built the home on Clarkson Road that they still live in today. The couple has three adult children, Mathew, 31, Stephanie, 28, and Michelle, 25.
For 14 years, Liesa worked at Armagh where she started out as a volunteer in 1991. She went on to serve as board President and as Executive Director from 2003 to 2005.
“It became a family within a community of incredible women,” she says about the experience. “It’s just the most gratifying feeling to be there and truly make a difference,” she adds.
Throughout her time in Mississauga, Liesa has worked on various fundraising initiatives, including the Full Circle event, Oakville’s Struttin’ the Glitz fashion show, and Habitat for Humanity.
But underneath Liesa’s sunny exterior is a health battle of her own. In the summer of 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Once I found out – again being the positive person I am – I just knew I was going to get through it. And I accepted it.”
Liesa had a lumpectomy in October 2009 and underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy in April 2010. Although cancer came her way, she believes it was all a part of her life’s journey and she hopes to bring more awareness of cancer prevention to the Mississauga community.
“Through this experience, I’ve done a lot of research and am really excited to share some of the exciting things I’ve learned that will benefit the well-being of families.” Kim Phuc and Liesa Cianchino are back working together to launch the “Kim Phuc Ambassador of Peace” Award at high schools across Ontario and Canada. The award would be given to students who are making a special effort to promote peace in their communities. Plans for a pilot project in Mississauga are in the works but no date has been determined.
Once Liesa’s cancer is under control, she can resume another mission; to get a movie made of Kim Phuc’s life. Liesa, 54, remembers the exact moment when she asked Kim Phuc whether she was ready to make a movie from her life story. There was a slight pause before Kim replied.
“Liesa, my husband and I have been praying for the right person to come along.”
Tears began to run down Liesa’s face. Never in a million years did she expect to hear those words.
Kim Phuc and her husband had rejected several film offers from Hollywood in the past. It was an exciting moment for Liesa to hear that Kim Phuc trusted her to take on their story.
The two women say plans for the movie are still in the works. They hope it will become another miracle, “a vehicle that will help bring peace around the world.”