An unforgettable, daring walk to freedom more than 25 years ago led to a promising path of opportunity for Veronika Harmon.
The Federal Way woman and Auburn schoolteacher remembers it all too well.
Carrying few necessities and clutching her beloved stuffed animal, the 12-year-old girl and her family made the long, liberating journey. Her family, seeking a better way of life from what they had known in the Communist-held Czech Republic, quietly slipped across the Yugoslovia border into Austria in 1985 and left their oppressed native country.
The bold plan, disguised as a vacation trip, called for the family to pitch a tent and camp along the border. At midnight, they carefully began their walk under the cover of darkness, hoping armed guards would not see them.
“It was dangerous,” said Harmon, as she sat to reflect in her empty pre-K classroom at Valley Christian School. “I prayed prior to leaving, and I prayed that we would be safe. As a little girl, I didn’t understand how safe we really needed to be.
“For me, I was worried,” she recalled. “Could I walk that far? I prayed that God would give me the strength to walk that far.”
Harmon and her family – at the time, her parents and two younger sisters – followed guides on a six-hour walk to freedom, covering mountainous terrain. It was surreal, a scene reminiscent of the Von Trapps’ escape in the “Sound of Music.”
For Harmon and her family, the adventurous move changed the course of their lives.
“I just had this energy, this strength. I felt like I was walking on clouds,” Harmon said of the long walk. “For me, it was the beginning of my belief in God.”
Born in Prague, Harmon didn’t enjoy religious freedom or certain luxuries of ordinary life.
“If you were looking through a child’s eye, my eyes, it was an OK life,” Harmon said. “As a child, you didn’t know any better. … To me, I had everything I needed.”
Not all conditions were ideal. Harmon recalls times when she and her classmates were dispatched to school outside Prague, so they could “clean out our lungs” from the effects of heavy factory smoke. The government, Harmon insisted, had little regard for the environment and the welfare of its people who lived near industrial sectors.
Harmon and her family lived modestly under the hard hand of a watchful Communist regime. Her parents privately disagreed with government-held practices and political views. Harmon was told to keep those opinions at home – for the safety of her own family.
“My dad really didn’t want anything to do with (the government),” Harmon said. “When you live in a society like that, you could pretend that you agreed with everything … but my dad wasn’t interested in that.”
Harmon’s father worked long and hard as a bus driver, earning a salary equivalent to $5 an hour. It was a meager wage, considering the country’s high cost of living.
Her father saved enough money to buy some property outside Prague to build a family cottage. Government officials soon intervened, questioned its size, nature and proximity to a street. The government eventually seized it.
“He had decided that was enough,” Harmon said.
The family then carefully planned an exodus, a move that ultimately brought hope, happiness and prosperity. Through a sponsor – her mother’s cousin lived in Federal Way – Harmon’s family was brought stateside. Today, the family is living well, closely connected in Western Washington.
Given the opportunity, Harmon soon realized her dreams. She married her Thomas Jefferson High School sweetheart, earned a college degree and bought a home. They are raising a large family. Two of her four children are adopted. The oldest is a 20-year-old son, a Marine serving in Afghanistan.
A teacher since 1997, Harmon enjoys her career and her role with kids.
“We’re very grateful to have her at Valley Christian,” said Principal Gloria Butz. “She does an amazing job relating to the kids and the parents. She has a joy and a profound sense of gratefulness to be here.”
“I love it here,” Harmon said. “Children have such wonderful ideas. … They have this new perspective on life, this new way of looking at things.”
As does Harmon, who has a profound appreciation of and greater perspective on life. She is grateful for her chance to flourish here, and the people who made it possible.
“My dad was thinking of our future and realized there was a better life for us,” Harmon said. “I am thankful my dad held onto his beliefs. He didn’t settle for anything less.”
Harmon did return to her native land, now a free society, back in 2004 to visit her grandmother and relatives. Some things have changed for the better. “It’s a country that slowly is trying to find itself again,” she said.
Harmon still has fond memories of her childhood. That sentimental stuffed animal, the coveted furry dog she carried with her to freedom, has been kept in her den along with the T-shirt she wore on that fateful night.
Each day she reflects on what was and what has become of her life.
“From my experience, freedom is important to me. I realize that with freedom comes responsibility,” she said. “And I am thankful now, having found it … having the opportunity to live rich in my dreams.”
(Mark Klaas is editor of the Auburn Reporter, a Sound Publishing newspaper)