‘Girl in the picture’ delivers moving address at convocation

Kim Phuc had powerful language to describe the famous and shocking photograph of herself as a nine-year-old victim of the Vietnam War at Friday’s Fall 2004 Convocation ceremony. The recipient of an honorary doctor of laws degree, who once wanted to escape the picture that “would not let me go”, called the famous image a “gift that was part of God’s plan for my life.”

The 41-year-old mother of two was honoured during afternoon ceremonies for graduates from the faculties of Arts, Education, Fine Arts, Graduate Studies and Glendon College in the pavilion on Convocation Green.

Left: Kim Phuc, with Lorna R. Marsden, president and vice-chancellor of York University, photo by CanGrad Studios

In her moving speech, Kim (full name: Kim Phuc Phan Thi) described how the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken by Nick Ut in 1972 became a symbol of both war and peace that she came to terms with only after she was “found” living in Toronto by a British journalist in 1997.

“For a long time after I came to Canada I wanted to forget the photograph,” said Kim. “That picture had followed me everywhere and I just wanted to live a private life in my new country with my family. But that picture wouldn’t let me go. A reporter from London, England, found me [and] finally, a wonderful thing happened. I stopped resisting that photograph. I realized I could work with it to educate people for peace.”

Appointed United Nations Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador shortly after the story of her life was revealed in the West, Kim said she has travelled the world with her message of healing and peace, speaking to presidents, prime ministers, business people and ordinary citizens. Included in her list of those she met was Queen Elizabeth; “we talked for five minutes,” she said.

Kim spoke of her desire to help other child victims of war heal through education, aided by the Kim Foundation which she established in 2000. She herself was burned horribly after her village was hit by napalm bombs. Ut photographed her running from the scene, her clothes burned from her body, and afterwards helped her get medical attention. Doctors gave her little chance of surviving the third degree burns that scarred her body for life.

“But I didn’t die,” she said to sudden applause from an appreciative audience caught up in her story. “I had 17 operations and I survived. During this time I learned many lessons about compassion, about life in the outside world and about the value of education. I had two dreams: one was to try to study medicine, the other was to live in a free country.”

Kim’s hope of fulfilling both dreams was thwarted by her health and the demands of her role as a propaganda tool for the Vietnamese government. After meeting and marrying her husband Toan, Kim abandoned her studies in English and Spanish in Havana and defected in Gander, Newfoundland, on the return trip from a honeymoon in Moscow in 1986. Her husband only learned of his wife’s intentions on board the plane but agreed they would risk it. “It was an act of true love,” Kim said with a smile.

Right: The pain and terror of Kim Phuc (centre) was captured by Nick Ut in his 1972 award-winning photograph 

The couple, who now have two sons, aged 10 and 7, were one of the last of a group of refugees to enter Canada this way before immigration rules were changed. Kim said she and her husband see the story of their flight to Canada as a legacy for their boys. “Mummy and Daddy had nothing,” she said. “We had each other and we had freedom, so we had everything.”

Robert Drummond, dean of the Faculty of Arts, thanked Kim for her comments and noted in particular, on behalf of the assembled educators and graduates, her statement that “all that I wished was to go to school. I love school.”

The capacity crowd in the Convocation Pavilion gave Kim a standing ovation at the end of her remarks, which were recorded by a large contingent of journalists. Their interest served as testimony to the continuing appeal of her story 32 years after the image that “changed the course of the war” first appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world.