The whispers and giggles woke me up. I felt the cold, hard surface of the table on which I was sleeping, and sat up quickly. Across the room, curious children peeked over the open window’s edge. Feeling a little embarrassed to be caught sleeping on the table, I waved them off and got myself together – refugee camp or not, I still needed the first few minutes of the day to myself.
Half an hour later I presented myself to the Red Crescent office, ready to begin work as the Social Care Co-ordinator at the Pulau Bidong Vietnamese Boat People Camp off the coast of Terengganu, Malaysia. It was June 1979. As a fresh sociology grad, I was bent on changing the world, or at least the world of the 46,000 refugees crowded onto 100 hectares of land.
The Red Crescent Office and Store was one of the few real buildings in the camp – and the table was the most comfortable place to sleep. The others were a camp hospital, the offices for the third country delegations, and the Joint Malaysian Army & Navy Base Headquarters. There was also a church, which the refugees had built with the wood found on the island.
I was brought to see the chairman of the VBP Camp Committee. He was delighted – finally, he said, something more than the basic necessities was in sight. He wanted activities for the women and children to be organised, supplies and clothing to enable the running of English classes, work groups and other sessions that would help to sustain life in the camp and prepare the refugees for their new lives in countries such as the United States, Australia and Germany. I was expected to help co-ordinate the movement of these supplies, and work with the Camp Committee to ensure they were used appropriately.
I learnt all this over breakfast with the committee. Our meal caught me by surprise – delicious freshly baked French loaves with butter, and hot tea. They told me if I stayed at the camp long enough, I would come to know the places where I could eat delicious French or Vietnamese food courtesy of camp residents who could cook and get the right supplies on the camp’s black market.
Then I met the different country delegations – the people who decided who would be accepted to which countries – before finally being assigned a translator.
His name was Lam Van Dai. We toured the rest of the camp and I saw that most of the refugees lived in tents or shacks built with scrap wood, tarpaulin bags and anything else that was available. Long houses were being built to provide better accommodation, but until they were ready, it was up to each family’s ingenuity to find the best accommodation they could. Indeed, the island’s natural vegetation had long been stripped to make temporary housing. Water sources were no longer potable. Daily ferries brought in water, two buckets per household, collected by people waiting patiently in queues that snaked up and down the shoreline near the makeshift jetty.
After the tour, Lam invited me home for dinner with his wife and four kids. “Home” was a makeshift, one-room shelter of tarpaulins supported by sticks. Over the course of the evening, they not only shared their ration of instant noodles and sardines with me, but also their hopes and dreams.
Lam talked about the terrible time after the fall of Saigon, how they collected money from relatives to buy passage on a boat. Mostly, he spoke of the terrible journey across the South China Sea, the fear of being killed by pirates and the long days in a small fishing boat without water, and how they had to hold on to the hope that they would reach safety. With safety, they believed, would come freedom.
Despite the hardships, Lam said he was among the lucky ones in the camp because he had worked for the Americans and he could speak English. That meant that he had a good chance of being accepted to a third country. The less fortunate refugees lived in a state of limbo. It was uncertain if they would actually be accepted. Their long and painful journey to freedom had only just begun and yet life continued – lunches were cooked, children were fed and guests were entertained, with all the warmth and hospitality available to them.
That night, having been offered a bed in the camp hospital in place of the table in the office, I took a few minutes to look back over my day as I stared at the zinc walls waiting for the lights to go out. There was so much to do. I really did not know how I was going to do it.
Then I realised – it was no longer about me. I was only there to make it possible for Lam and his countrymen to rebuild their lives in their own way, with their own dreams. I would do my best to get them the resources they needed. Then I would get out of the way.
And only then, did I sleep.
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