PHAM Thien Truong thinks of himself as a lucky man. He escaped his native Vietnam in 1988, and escaped the Russian-Vietnamese vessel that captured him and his fellow travellers just two days out of port. In the forty days after that second escape, as his boat floated aimlessly in the South China Sea, powerless, he may have thought his luck had run out. In truth there were 18 people in the group who died at sea,and he and his other companions were nearly dead when the Philippine Coast Guard picked them up off the coast of Liminangcong and brought them to shore. But the people of Liminangcong had already opened their hearts and town to the refugees, the Boat People, and this group too was warmly received.
Ten days later PHAM found himself in the Refugee Processing Center in Puerto Princesa. Here he says he married the brightest student in the camp, DINH Thi Huong Giang, one of the two DINH sisters who had escaped from Vietnam about the same time. Dinh and her sister had been luckier, spending only five days at sea before they were picked up by a passing vessel, but once in camp in Puerto Princesa, Dinh and Pham both heard all sorts of stories of hardship, suffering, and yes, a little luck, that had brought the refugees to Palawan.
The Vietnamese Refugee Camp (later on Philippine First Asylum Camp) provided access to basic services including education. All refugees living in the PFAC had to go through language, cultural orientation and skills classes. Having gone through all these, Pham, and his wife Dinh, and her sister, DINH Mai (who worked as a Volunteer Head of Form writer and interpreter at the UNHCR field office in PFAC) and her husband Khanh Duy Tran, were all resettled in Melbourne and Canberra, Australia. Dinh Thi Huong Giang is now an IT expert and serves as a Director at the Australian Bureau of Taxation. Her husband, Pham Thien Truong, runs a bakery called Bush Bread while Khan runs a textile business in Melbourne. Khanh’s wife is now an office administrator in a Catholic School in Australia.
In the Palawan camp Pham and Dinh also befriended NGUYEN Van Dung. He was resettled in Texas, USA where he engaged in various kinds of work from fishing, to construction supplies and now owns and runs a restaurant in Las Vegas called The Boiling Crab. He met his wife, PHAM Thuy, in the United States. Thuy’s father was also a refugee in Palawan and resettled in the US; he later sponsored his family directly from Vietnam through the Family Reunion Program.
But the two families in Australia maintained the bonds of friendship with NGUYEN even though he was on the other side of the world. He and the Dinh sisters had sung in the choir together during their time in the PFAC so it was exciting for them to have this reunion, all eleven of them including their children.
These three families decided to make a trip to Liminangcong wishing only to give back to the village that had helped them so much in their hour of need. With the assistance of Mel Calcaben, an ex-UNHCR officer in the PFAC, the families organized the whole trip at the local level, planning with Liminangcong’s Barangay Captain, Ms. Lanie Abogado.
They were met at Liminangcong with a drum and lyre corps, and a very enthusiastic, tearfully happy crowd. The Vietnamese group asked to go to the church first, to give thanks for their lives – an attitude which brought more happy tears to almost everyone. They were greeted by the Barangay officials led by Ms Lanie Abogado and the retired Coast Guard Captain who had brought them in off the sea.
A large woven basket was displayed during the climax of the singing and brought a mixture of sad and grateful memories. During the height of the migration from Vietnam, people were known to have slipped into such baskets and floated out to sea on escape nights trusting their fate to the unknown and to the mercy of the tides and unpredictable waters . To this day, the people of Liminangcong had saved one of these baskets as sort of a monument.
The welcome lunch featured a program with messages from people so thankful for their very lives. “The whole village was excited to see the group and really prepared something that would make the visit most memorable for them: students baked goodies and prepared songs and the community really came out together to welcome the visiting group”. Ms. Abogado said. True enough, the popular chapel song – Welcome to the Family and Josh Groban’s You Raise me Up rendered by the school chorale brought more tears, and more thank yous.
These people, to whom Palawenos opened their hearts, are living examples of the many former refugees who have done well and are now contributing significantly to the economic and cultural activities of their new countries. This is truly notable in the face of renewed skepticism and fatigue towards the current waves of refugees across the globe, for it was such a happy occasion, so indicative of the goodness in people’s hearts – those who opened their hearts to refugees and those who came back to say thank you once more, and to share the success they had reached in their new countries. This is again something to remember when we think of the refugees all over the world.
As the UNHCR likes to point out, Einstein was a refugee too.