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‘Girl in the Picture’ shares message of forgiveness

Kim Phuc Phan Thi was immortalized at the age of nine in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph in which she was seen screaming and running naked down a road in Vietnam after having her clothing burned off by napalm

Known throughout the world as “The Girl in the Picture” and “The Napalm Girl,” Kim Phuc Phan Thi was made famous for a photograph taken at the worst moment of her life.

Pictured screaming, running naked down a road in Vietnam, the nine-year-old’s clothing had been burned off by napalm which also burned her skin.

This moment, captured by photographer Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, was featured in various newspapers and was credited with helping change Americans’ public perception regarding the war and its impact on the Vietnamese. The photograph earned Ut a Pulitzer Prize. 

Phan Thi was in Greater Sudbury today to share her story as keynote speaker at Rotary District 7010 Conference 2022 at the Holiday Inn. 

The moment for which she was made internationally famous resulted in years of painful burn therapy, and filled her with anger and bitterness.

“Why do I have to suffer like this, and I would never be able to find friends and eventually find love,” she said of her reasoning of the day, adding that she “wasn’t in a healthy place” and would come to recognize something had to change.

Although the burns on her body were being treated, she said, “I had not yet treated the wounds I wore in my heart. … Just like napalm, anger, bitterness consumed me and threatened to burn up my soul.”

She took solace in Christianity and “radical forgiveness,” which she credits with allowing her to let go of the “dark anger and bitterness that have overtaken my heart.”

“My enemies list became my prayer list,” she said. “I started to pray for one, for two, for three, and four and for all of them.”

Phan Thi went on to study pre-med until the Vietnamese government removed her from school to act as a national symbol for the war. She was later permitted to continue her studies in Cuba, but health issues ended her plans to become a doctor.

She did, however, meet the man who would become her husband, Bui Huy Toan, whom she married on Sept. 11, 1992. While on their way back to Cuba following a honeymoon in Moscow, the couple defected to Canada during a layover in Gander, Newfoundland. 

“All we had was each other and the clothes on our backs, but we didn’t care, we were finally free,” she told today’s audience. “It was an amazing turning point in our lives.”

The famous photograph continued to follow her, rekindling a sense of bitterness and anger, however, she came to see it as a blessing, as it provided her with an inroad to work toward peace.

The little girl in the photo now represents “peace, love, hope,” she said. “We cannot change our history, but with love we can change the future.”

Phan Thi is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Goodwill Ambassador for the Culture of Peace, and created The Kim Foundation International, a non-profit organization mandated with helping “heal the wounds suffered by innocent children and to restore hope and happiness to their lives by providing much-needed medical and psychological assistance.” 

Phan Thi currently lives with her family in Ajax, and was interviewed by the CBC earlier this year to help mark the 50th anniversary of the photograph that made her famous. She has written a book, Fire Road, about her life’s journey.

Rotary Club of Sudbury past-president Bill Querney was responsible for bringing Phan Thi to the Nickel City, and credits her story with helping inspire him to join the club a couple decades ago.

“Her story was so touching that it’s a big reason why I’m in Rotary today,” she told Sudbury.com following today’s speech. “Her humanitarian efforts, her desire to be at peace is remarkable.”

Rotarians, he said, are “all about humanitarianism,” and that he’s certain Phan Thi’s message resonated with those in attendance.

This weekend’s conference includes various speakers, which approximately 150 Rotarians from 44 clubs throughout the district will hear from.

“A lot of the reason for getting together is Rotary’s all about fellowship, and this is just another example of fellowship,” Querney said. “Bringing the clubs together helps to drive the message of Rotary International home.”

Querney said the region’s Rotary Clubs – part of the oldest service club in the world – is always looking for people interested in joining. The Rotary Club of Sudbury meets at noon on Mondays, while the Rotary Club of Sudbury-Sunrisers meet on Thursday mornings.

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.