When three Vietnamese families made a return visit to Liminangcong, the fishing village in which they had found safety 30 years ago after their harrowing escapes from Vietnam, there was one totally unexpected surprise for them.
After the greetings, the tears, the gifts, and the food, the barangay chairman asked the visitors, to their shock and surprise, if they would like to meet a Vietnamese woman who still lived in their village. Perhaps she hadn’t been left by these three families who returned for a visit; perhaps she was left behind by one of the many Vietnamese groups who had landed and passed through Liminangcong during the years of the Boat People’s exodus – that is from the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 to approximately 1988.
Her name is Gliceria Verian Huerto. If she had a Vietnamese name, no one knows what it was. She does not speak Vietnamese, not even a single word. She estimates that she is about 40 years old. She must have been younger than three or four when she was left behind or she would have known her name and been able to use Vietnamese. We might suppose she was perhaps two. We must remember that the refugees were transported by navy boat from Liminangcong and other ports to Puerto Princesa City, sometimes in haste, as the tides were just right or a storm was approaching. We can only imagine how her family, if she had a family, felt when they realized they had left the child behind. There were of course many who perished at sea as well as on land upon their arrival in Liminangcong. Could she have been an orphaned child? It would be hard to believe that a family meant to leave her.. On the other hand it is also hard to believe that during their time in the processing camp – and they were generally there for about six months to a year – no one brought this situation to the attention of the camp authorities or to IOM and/or UNHCR who were in charge of the movement of the refugees. Perhaps we will never know exactly what happened.
But the child was apparently cute and hence immediately taken in by a local family in Liminangcong. There she grew up reasonably happily, in companionship with the other children in the family. She learned to speak Filipino, and came to feel like she belonged there. True, everyone knew she was Vietnamese, and she was sometimes bullied as a child, called a Vietcong, and for a while during a Miss Universe craze, called Miss Aruba! (Never mind the lack of logic in that: kids are kids!)
But she grew up, was educated, got married, now has two children of her own, and still lives in Liminangcong. She is an accredited Barangay Health Worker. But the visit of her former countrymen suggested some questions and further possibilities for her future. She does not have a birth certificate so there are more questions than answers at the moment concerning her persona and legal status in the Philippines; her refugee status has never been established. If her identity is established, will she have lost her refugee status, given the many years that she has lived in the Philippines? Her refugee status will have to be credibly established prior to looking into what might be a lasting solution for her according to the Refugee Convention of 1951 (Refugee Law). The Convention provides the three following durable solutions:
- voluntary repatriation to her country of origin.
- Local integration in the host country, including being granted citizenship
- resettlement into a third country.
She doesn’t want to return to her country of origin to live because she knows no one, and since she doesn’t know who her family is, she is unlikely to be resettled in a third country. She is in fact integrated into the local culture already although her citizenship has not been established.
Ms. Huerto told the group of visitors that while she had no desire to leave, she would like to trace her roots, find her family. The Red Cross helps with such tasks, but this looks extremely difficult: the only clue is that she is the child of someone from one of the number of boats allegedly from Vietnam which landed and passed through Liminangcong at some point. The Vietnamese families from Australia who came to visit took a lock of her hair, and plan also to follow up on leads in stories of abandoned or lost children, perhaps tracing back in history through stories told to priests who were in the forefront of rescuing the boat people who came earlier in the 80’s.
It will take a minor miracle to find her family, but stranger things have happened, and we certainly would love to see this happen.
So this might become a chapter three in the Saga of the Vietnamese in Liminangcong!