When I was invited to a former Vietnamese refugee reunion in Saigon, I was expecting a small lunch affair with people who have flourished in their new host countries. People who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon who risked their lives on rickety fishing boats to escape political and economic hardships. I had full expectations to document their success abroad in America, Canada, Australia, and many other host countries where asylum seekers were accepted. But not all refugees found new homes. This twenty-something year reunion in the making was actually full of people who were denied asylum and repatriated to Vietnam.
The first wave of sea refugees were generally accepted by host countries. However, towards the end of the 80s, with refugee numbers increasing, resources depleting, and host countries changing their policies, the UN Refugee Committee implemented new rules designed to discourage and lessen boat people. New screening processes designed to distinguish between political and economic refugees meant that many were repatriated back to their home countries. The screening process was also subject to corruption and bribery, especially after the UNHCR left vetting authority to local Indonesian officials. As the mid 90s approached, refugee camps on the brink of closure, protests were staged and people were imprisoned. By 1996 the Galang Refugee Camp, one of the largest camps in Indonesia, closed and people returned to Vietnam, both voluntarily and by force. These are their stories.
I found myself in front of a busy market as the Saigon sun was rapidly setting yet again. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was supposed to be. Addresses and numbers in Vietnam aren’t always the most reliable. But, out of nowhere Chanh showed up holding a bag of banh mi and pointed into a tiny alley. I walked past his humble home without realizing that it was even a home. Caged chickens were spread throughout the entrance and side rooms, and even some under the sink and stove. A skinny cat meowed under his bed as we looked through Chanh’s iPad photos of him during his days at Galang.
Before his voyage out to sea, Chanh described himself as a well-built man who worked in construction. His ambitions didn’t center on leaving Vietnam. But, his older brother organized an expedition and he was asked to help guide people to the boat. Without much thought he boarded the boat as well and went out to sea for a harsh journey. There were only two containers of water and the rest were fuel. Due to low supplies he had no choice but to drink his own urine to avoid dehydration at sea. This was only the beginning of the suffering experienced by so many refugees.
Once on the island, he worked whatever odd jobs came his way, like farming and construction. He also raised fighting roosters, which authorities later banned. One day, the authorities came into his shack and accused him of murder. He was jailed for two months and when he was released, his girlfriend was already seeing another man. Given the series of dreadful events, Chanh was left disillusioned and heartbroken. In such a state of sorrow, Chanh attempted to chop off his finger. After it was reattached, the pain was too much and nobody else wanted to operate on it. He took it upon himself and with the help of a friend cut the rest of the finger off and sewed the wound closed himself to avoid further infection. After four years living on the island in such conditions, he voluntarily signed papers to return to Vietnam.
Upon returning to Vietnam, the UN provided resources like professional training and he took classes on everything from driving to mechanical work. However, he was never able to stick with anything for too long and spent the past twenty years doing construction work and raising chickens. Despite the dreadful conditions, Chanh believes that his return to Vietnam wasn’t a waste. In speaking with him, he made it clear that he’s found happiness by way of living a simple life. His new iPad has been instrumental in his simple life, allowing him to connect with old friends from Galang, and teaching him dance skills that he was happy to show off at the reunion.
I was on a bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon, and Phuong happened to be sitting beside me. She noticed that I was struggling with my phone (I wasn’t wearing my glasses) and offered to help, which instigated a seven-hour discussion. A few weeks later I reconnected with Phuong and I toured her old neighborhood.
After 1975, her mother and two younger sisters, like many others in Vietnam during this time, found themselves in tremendous poverty. With no money to afford proper shelter, they were left with no choice but to sleep on the steps of a church, which offered no protection from the elements. As the years passed by, she worked every kind of job available to her including wading in the mud to cut rattan. When her husband found himself in legal issues, she used his motorcycle as collateral for a boat ticket. Along with her younger sister, they made their way onto Galang, where she gave birth to a son. Though she made the journey overseas, Phuong failed her screening. Fortunately, when it was time for her sister’s paperwork to be processed, Finland accepted her.
A few months later Phuong was offered to be sponsored as a guardian for her sister, however, if she left the island her mother and two other sisters in Vietnam would not be able to resettle. If she returned to Vietnam, then her family would be sponsored over. She ultimately decided to help her family and six months later she was left alone in Vietnam as a single mother. She returned to doing odd jobs, including sneaking into the Saigon Zoo by crawling into dog holes in order to sell cigarettes. The trials and tribulations of her life are plenty and continue to this day, and I can do little justice to her amazing journey in this short piece.
When I first met Phong and his wife, they immediately took a liking to me and invited me over to their home. They joked about how they were literally the last ones to leave Galang. The two met in a coastal town near Vung Tau. He was adopted and given to a South Vietnam family that was going through difficulties, politically and economically, after the conclusion of the war. Later in life he worked as a sailor for free with the hope that it would offer the opportunity to escape. Having been a part of that family now meant that with the regime change his existence was often up against certain odds. For instance, when his daughter was born he was not able to obtain a birth certificate for her and had to use his friend’s name instead.
The opportunity to flee eventually came and he soon found himself on the island, facing uncomfortable situations with his wife and their two children. The barracks system consisted of long temporary homes with no privacy, and such buildings were supported only by some wooden planks despite housing many people. You can imagine losing the traditional family hierarchy with communal housing. Eventually, Phong and his family bought themselves a shack and moved in.
After four years on the island, their asylum was denied, and Phong and his wife took part in the camp-wide protests, during which a series of hunger strikes and sit-ins took place. Two people even committed suicide by fire as extreme means of protesting the terrible living conditions. Eventually, the Indonesian military came in and arrested the main aggressors. Phong’s wife was especially aggressive in her protest and was taken away.
Phong rejoined his wife on Pinang Island where the family spent almost two years in prison. His wife described how she had to climb on the roof and wander into the city at night to beg for additional food for her family. She recalled how generous the Indonesians and Chinese locals were to her. Eventually, they were forced to return to Vietnam.
To this very day, Phong claims that his life as a forced returnee has negatively impacted his social status. His livelihood consisted of selling whatever goods he could get at market spaces. Phong and his wife feel like the past is still haunts them, negatively impacting their ability to do simple things like purchasing land.
When Thuc walked up to my table at the reunion the people next to me knew immediately who he was. Someone whispered to me that he was one of the three who protested their failed screening by self-stabbing. Again, I was not sure what that meant until he lifted his shirt and showed me without hesitation.
A few days later we were walking together in his alley and as we came up to his house I was shocked. It was one of the largest homes I had ever seen in Vietnam. Though it’s clear he’s come a long way from his time at Galang, Thuc still carries the heavy burden of memories his shoulders. After his father returned from the reeducation camps, he had the potential option to go to America because he served under the Americans during the war. His father refused to emigrate, but Thuc was still determined to leave. His job as a noodle maker restricted him greatly, and though he tried numerous times to escape, he was always captured and sent back home.
After countless attempts, Thuc made it onto a ship, where he witnessed how unfairly people were treated when it came to food rationings. He claimed that the crew received much healthier portions of the jicama and water that he and others had. Things got so bad that a man on board, who carried a grenade, threatened to blow the entire ship up if conditions did not get better. Fortunately, after the second night they were picked up by a Panamanian ship heading to Holland. This was quite rare because after the changes of world policy towards the boat people, most ships did not pick up refugees. The ship’s captain gave them the option of going with their crew to Holland or being sent to Galang. Thuc was desperate to go anywhere, to escape the harsh conditions of life at sea, but the majority of his fellow refugees wanted to go where they knew loved ones would be awaiting their arrival. As soon as they were on Malaysian soil, they regretted their decision.
A couple of years later, Thuc failed his asylum screening even though he had papers proving his father’s role during the war, thus granting him political refugee status. The interviewer who was an Indonesian official did not believe him and thought his papers were forgeries.
According to Thuc, when the UNHCR passed over power to the Indonesian officials, also known as papas, they had the authority to grant resettlement tickets to anyone they wanted, as long as they did not go over a certain percentage. This lead to many Vietnamese women mingling or getting extra close to the papas. This also led to many others who knew those Vietnamese women to bribe the officials for tickets of their own. A ticket that started at $1000 quickly rose to $10,000. Thuc obviously did not have that kind of money so, as a way of protest he and two others decided to stab themselves while handing a letter of grievances to a Bishop visiting from the Vatican at that time. Unfortunately, Thuc never made it to the top of the hill to the church where the Bishop was located. He passed out halfway as security swarmed him. He was sent to another island for surgery, as it was discovered that the knife had plunged so deep that it punctured his liver. Thuc eventually agreed to return to Vietnam because he only saw his path to death before him at the camps.
The day that he arrived back in Vietnam was a day when many Viet kieu, or Vietnamese living abroad, returned home as well as the Vietnamese New Years was approaching. When his group of returnees came back, an immigration officer told them to step aside for the Viet kieu, who are often seen as people who love their country. It’s rather ironic that those who escaped and made it are seen as heroes, but those who escaped and did not make it are seen as traitors.
To this very day, Thuc still wants to move abroad. This answer was surprising to me because it looked like he was currently living such a refined lifestyle compared to so many other Vietnamese. He has a stable job and a warm family environment, but he still does not feel comfortable. When I asked him why he felt this way, he replied that his family has lost too much for him to ever feel like any of what he saw mattered. What is important to him is not being rich or poor, it is being comfortable.
These stories are just a small batch of examples of the many lives, burdens, and experiences that the Vietnamese and all refugees carry with them on a daily basis. For them, the past will never be forgotten, but if nobody documents or records their stories, their experiences will be lost forever to the rest of us. The Vietnamese refugees have integrated so well into American culture. Pho and banh mi are staples of any large city. The Vietnamese refugee success stories are plentiful, but let’s never forget about those who were not so fortunate.
I would like to say a special thanks to everyone who helped me turn this documentary into a reality, from the people who graciously shared their stories, pictures, and poetry; to the friends who helped me translate. And to you for reading and watching.