HOUSTON - Forced into exile in the U.S., Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh is without her homeland but not without hope.
Quynh and her family are beginning their lives anew in Houston after she was released last month from prison in Vietnam on the condition that she left the country. She had been serving a 10-year sentence for documenting various human rights abuses in Vietnam, including civilian deaths in police custody and environmental disasters.
Quynh says her eyesight was affected by months in solitary confinement, with her cell kept in darkness during the day and flooded with blinding light at night.
“In Vietnam, I read in the newspaper that the people in the U.S. have freedom, but it belongs to the U.S. government. My government said that,” Quynh said in a recent interview. “When I came here … I found out the people here, the citizens in the U.S., they really have” freedom.
What she has so far seen as she settles into her new life in Houston has given Quynh the belief that her homeland — criticized by groups such as Amnesty International for restricting freedom of speech, the press and religion — will one day be transformed and she will be able to return.
“I believe if all the people raise their voice, fight for freedom, Vietnam will be changed,” she said.
Quynh said she will continue highlighting abuses in Vietnam as she and her 12-year-old daughter Nam, her six-year-old son Gau and her 62-year-old mother settle into their new lives.
Since arriving in the U.S., Quynh has traveled to Washington to meet U.S. government and European Union officials as well as journalists.
On Tuesday, she was one of five journalists who received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists at a ceremony in New York.
The 39-year-old blogger known by her pen name Me Nam, or “Mother Mushroom,” co-founded a network of bloggers that is very popular in Vietnam.
Posts about the release of toxic chemicals by a Taiwanese-owned factory that killed thousands of fish in one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters were some of her best known.
But her reporting made her a target of the Vietnamese government.
More than four decades after communist North Vietnam prevailed in 1975 over the U.S. and South Vietnam in the long and bloody Vietnam War, the government promotes an image of an open, globalized economy. But it has maintained a firm grip over the country through strict controls of the media and other forms of communication.
“In a country where the mainstream press is fully under the government’s control, her independent reporting provided a crucial public service,” said Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Southeast Asia representative.
In June 2017, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her Facebook posts that the government considered anti-state propaganda, as part of a larger crackdown on bloggers and activists.
In October, Quynh was released in a freedom-for-exile deal. Crispin says the Vietnamese government increasingly uses such agreements to silence critics.
Quynh says she and her family are still dealing with the effects of her incarceration. Her daughter has become quiet and reserved. Her son is always nervous, believing that police in the U.S. will try to take his teddy bear as Vietnamese police did when they arrested his mother.
Quynh said she plans to highlight the harsh prison conditions faced by activists and others still incarcerated in Vietnam, including a lack of proper health care and, for female prisoners, a lack of privacy where they essentially have to shower in view of male guards.
“When I was in prison, the Vietnamese authorities always tried to convince me that … I was totally forgotten. I will be rotting in here for life and nobody will care,” Quynh said.
In Houston — which has the third-largest Vietnamese population in the U.S. behind Los Angeles and San Jose, California — she is staying with a member of her blogging network and is receiving support while her application for asylum is reviewed by the U.S. government.
“If the (activists) who are behind bars right now, if they just know that (they’re not forgotten), that will help fuel their spirit, lift them up and give them more strength.”