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Brother celebrates 50 years in freedom


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Brother Leon Leba counts each new day as another blessing, another miracle that he still is alive. The Hong Kong-born jubilarian—celebrating 50 years as a Christian Brother —almost lost his life while imprisoned for 6 ½ years in North Vietnam.

Leba and his family, which includes six brothers and one sister, moved to Hanoi, Vietnam during World War II. He and his siblings went to schools operated by the Christian Brothers.

Leba was so moved by the care and education received from the Christian Brothers that he decided to enter their community at age 13.

“I so appreciated what the Christian Brothers did for my family and friends that I wanted to become one of them,” said Brother Leba, who now lives in retirement in Chicago.

His family remained in the south part of Vietnam when the Communists divided the country in 1954. Leba continued his work there as a Christian Brother and began his career as an educator and principal in 1962.

His siblings [brothers] cooperated with the American forces for more than 21 years. All went somewhat well until the Communists overtook the entire country.

“The Communists wouldn’t let my brothers attend any religious school.” Leba said.

“Eventually they confiscated all 23 of the Christian Brothers schools.”

In 1975 most of the Christian Brothers emigrated to either France or the United States. Leba’s mother and other family members moved to the United States.

“Some of us tried to survive under their [Communist] regime,” Leba continued. “We were not allowed to teach anywhere.”

The Communists subsequently arrested Leba.

“Two of my brothers also were arrested and put in an ‘education’ camp in North Vietnam,” Leba said. “It was similar to a military camp. One was kept there 13 years and three months. Another was imprisoned for three years and two months.”

Leba was arrested on suspicion of being a C.I.A. agent. He thinks it might have been because he knew more than one language.

Leba was locked in a small, dark cell for 6 ½ years.

“The room had a low ceiling, was about two meters by one meter, and had six holes of one centimeter in diameter to breathe. ” Leba said. “The heat was horrible. I can’t even describe how hot it got in there.”

Leba’s feet were always shackled, which made it difficult to sleep.

He received one can of boiled water a day. He could use it to either drink or bathe. Leba’s daily diet, if he was lucky, consisted of a bowl of rice, sweet potatoes or some corn with two spoons of salty water.

A pail in the room served as his toilet. “We were allowed 10 minutes once a week to empty that pail and bathe. You can’t imagine the stench and the bugs,” he said.

The condition of hygiene in the cell was so bad that Leba caught scabies and had to be nude all the time of his confinement.

Brother Anatole Back, a friend of Leba’s, occasionally came with another friend and his sister to visit and give him food.

“They paid a high price for their compassion,” Leba said. “All of them were arrested at the place where I was imprisoned because of what they did for me. One was released after 2 ½ years; another after three years; and the last one served 7 ½ years.”

Leba added that anyone who read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, “The Gulag Archipelago” will have some idea of the cruelties inflicted on prisoners under the Communist regime.

Leba said he doesn’t know why he didn’t die in prison. Thirteen other prisoners were there with him. They had been “officially convicted” of crimes and were executed. Leba was the only one who wasn’t.

“It’s a miracle that I survived,” said Leba. “Everyone thought I would die in prison.”

Leba says he spent his time in the small, dark cell meditating, praying and doing whatever exercise was possible.

“I practiced the Catholic version of yoga. I would meditate and pray,” he added. “Perhaps all of this is difficult to believe. It’s all true. In the space of two weeks, I actually saw two men die. That made a great impression on me. Their condition had not seemed any worse than mine. I, however, had not lost hope.”

Leba was freed in 1982 but still has no idea why he was released. “All I can think is that it was God’s will.”

Even after Leba was released, he still remained a prisoner of sorts.

“I wasn’t allowed to teach or hold any kind of job,” he said.

Leba managed to find a place to live in the home of one of his brothers who remained in Vietnam.

“I worked ‘underground,’ tutoring just to get some money,” said Leba. “The families who helped me were wonderful but endangered themselves.”

Leba remained in Vietnam until 1990, when his mother was able to sponsor him and his two brothers in order to emigrate to the United States.

The three left their beloved country with nothing but the clothes on their backs—no photos, family treasures, nothing.

“But we were alive,” he said.

Leba petitioned the Christian Brothers in the United States for re-entry into the community. They welcomed him enthusiastically.

He taught in Louisiana for a while.

Nightmares haunted Leba for several years after his release. Heart, ear and eye problems now remain as consequences of his confinement. But Leba is grateful to be alive, living in America in religious freedom.

“It’s a miracle that I’m still alive,” said Leba. “My morale and gratitude to God couldn’t be greater.”