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How ‘Home Was a Safe House’ for This Refugee and Cancer Survivor

by | Mar 12, 2020 | Real Estate

Learn about Bao and Lillian’s inspiring journey home.

Like many couples, Bao and Lillian have their own ideas about what home is supposed to be.

“He’ll try to scatter things throughout where we live and I’m like, ‘That doesn’t go there’ or ‘No, I don’t think that’s great there,’” Lillian says smiling. “[And] he’s Mr. Safety at home. Seriously, there’s a … smoke alarm like every five steps it feels like.”

But for Bao, collecting things and obsessing over smoke alarms is rooted in something deeper.

Fleeing home

“I grew up in a poor country. We don’t let things go too much,” he explains.

Born in Vietnam, Bao learned at a young age that home isn’t permanent. In 1975, his family tried to escape before the Fall of Saigon.

“I still remember vividly waters up to their neck as they crossed this jungle into a swamp trying to escape from a small boat to the big boat,” he says. “It wasn’t successful because we got — the communists caught us. Me and my sister and my mom got caught, and we were in jail, handcuffed. [I was] 8 years old.”

After saving enough money, Bao’s family successfully fled in 1979.

“I can’t imagine what was going on in my parents’ heads when they said, ‘OK, we’re going to leave everything behind. We’re going to go to a country where we don’t speak the language, we don’t know the culture and we’re going to start all over.’ But they did it for me and my sister. I mean, they left everything behind. They were in their 30s. I can’t imagine that,” he says.

Building home

But he’s never forgotten. Bao served in the Army because he felt like he needed to repay the U.S. government for letting his family immigrate. Then he became a firefighter and bought a house in Fremont, CA.

“One of the things my dad always said, ‘You know, you’re not a true American yet until you buy a home or at least have an address where somebody can send you a letter.’ So that’s what’s kind of important to me,” he explains.

When Bao married Lillian, home meant even more.

“Home was a safe house where she could recover and just be her,” Bao explains. Just 15 months after their son was born, Lillian was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

“When the doctors don’t look you in the eye, you know it’s not good,” Lillian says. Practically overnight, their lives changed drastically. Lillian stopped breast feeding. Chemo and radiation became the routine.

Loving home

But in the midst of life’s biggest curve ball, the silver lining was home. Home became a refuge.

“When I went out, I had to put on a wig, I had no hair. And it was like I was hiding something,” Lillian recalls. “But when I got home, I got to take everything off. I got to lie in bed and just rest up and be us without having anyone judging or looking at me differently.”

Bao also did his part to lighten the mood at home.

“I told her that only one of us could be bald in this house,” he says. “I had pretty much, you know, a Bozo the Clown haircut for a year until she had her last chemo treatment.”

Lillian laughs remembering the infamous hairdo. “I couldn’t take it any longer. I was like, ‘Please get rid of it.’ He goes, ‘No, I’m anti-cancer. I’m going the opposite direction of you.’”

Now cancer-free for almost a year, she treasures family time in their safe house — even with Bao’s collections and smoke alarms everywhere.

“As long as we have each other, we’re having fun, everyone’s healthy, everyone’s good — that’s all that matters,” she says.

“We cook at home, we just hang out and enjoy each other. And our boy. I mean, our boy is our life now,” Bao adds.

Lillian’s dream is to have a big yard so their son can run around and play. Bao dreams of a big outdoor kitchen where they can cook together.

“After her survival and after what my parents went through, I don’t think anything — knock on wood — could knock us down,” Bao says. “[I mean] it would knock us down; we [would] just get back on our feet because we have our family.”

Bao and Lillian were interviewed for Zillow’s latest advertising campaign. Watch the TV commercials.

Don’t miss out on the next Zillow video! Subscribe today to see the latest. 


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An accomplished real estate professional with a distinguished track record of success.  She has spent over 17 years in Atlanta representing buyers and sellers of $1M+ properties and is a tremendous negotiator.  Micki has a unique knack for forming close and authentic relationships with her clients; she steps beyond the real estate transaction and provide them with after care.  Micki has unparalleled marketplace knowledge and thrives on being resourceful; she studies and follows the data beyond the average agent.



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