Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Woman in the Boat Part Two

My visits to the boat people camps in Southeast Asia were heartbreaking, of course. They changed me deeply and gave me a new purpose in life. Not a singular purpose but at least one new purpose -- and that was to do all that I could do for Thoa and Huong(my translator in Chimawan) and others, but also to help them through existing agencies set up to help refugees. It seemed to me that the governments of Hong Kong and Thailand and Malaysia were truly bearing an unfair burden in the flight of the boat people and that there were many men and women of kind and good hearts who were working to solve the problem and to alleviate the suffering. One day after recording a conversation with Thoa, the burned girl, I walked to the dock to take the boat back into Hong Kong. Huong walked with me and waited and while we waited with a group of relief workers she began to cry. She told me that she appreciated what I was doing but that she also wanted to leave the camp, wanted to get to the West. Wanted to be free. She had grown up in Hanoi and had relatives in the People's Army of Vietnam and had suffered under American bombing and now felt she had earned the right to happiness and freedom. I still have the notebook where I wrote down all the personal information I could get on her. I turned it in to American authorities and tried to help her. When I returned a few months later I found her in the Kai Tak processing center, she had been screened in and was on her way to the US. About one year later she called me from Los Angeles to thank me. She was in the US, living in southern California, she was working in a beauty shop and she was happy. What a happy ending, I thought. She has these many years remained in my thoughts but I never saw her again and never heard form her again.

Meanwhile, I had daily watched the various international relief agencies -- at least twenty of them -- working their wonders in the camp. I remember in particular a young Filipino couple who taught music and singing to groups of children in Chimawan. He played a guitar and the kids all sang for visitors. Any visitors. When I showed up, unexpected, I became an audience for them. Of course they broke my heart. The teachers and the students did not understand English very well. All was phonetic with them. And so as I sat in a chair, an audience of one, the teacher played the guitar and his wife directed the singers, and they sang to me, what they called an American favorite, "500 Smiles Away From Home." I caught the mistake of Smiles for Miles, but hearing them sing that song made me cry for them and for me and for the whole world. The song was truer for these little kids if the word was "smiles" rather than "miles" because they had no idea what a mile was. Another of their favorites, devoid of irony, was "Leaving on a Jet Plane." This was their dream. Little did they know that the "folk" groups who performed and sang these songs would never ever visit refugee camps. They were far far too busy singing in Cuba or Nicaragua. But the children learned the songs and sang them, as Father Joe described it to me many times, with the voices of angels.

When I got back to San Jose between trips, my conviction, my strong and burning and singular conviction, was that this cause, the cause of international refugees and their suffering was one of the great causes of our time. I thought the world should know more, especially the US and especially California. I decided to do what I could to get help. I went first to the leader of one of the largest groups of exiled South Vietnamese in San Jose. This man had been a dean of the Saigon University Law School and was making good money by 1991 in his Vietnamese restaurant and in teaching English as a Second Language to students who seemed never to be present. This ESL program was sponsored by government dollars and there were many many classes and not many students. When I visited his office I saw hundreds of brand new text books shrink wrapped on pallets as new as they day they were delivered. He sat as always holding a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and watching me as I made my appeal, warily. I told him as best I could the story of the situation of the people in the camps. When I was finished I remember his hissing reply: and I use the word hissing specifically. He looked at me and said, "Those people are not Vietnamese." I had expected many replies and denials but I had never dreamed of this one. I was confused. "What do you mean?" I asked him. "Of course they are Vietnamese." He shot back, "Those people are Chinese, not Vietnamese. They belong in China and not in the United States." I was both stunned and sickened. I had not in Asia run across such cold denial as I had among a fortunate and affluent refugee in the US.

I continued my quest for help and found several local "charitable" organizations holding fund raisers and gathering money to "help the boat people." I talked with the leaders and directors and found that the flow of money from donors and well wishers in America that should go to the camps was, well, elusive. It always seemed to evaporate when I sought to find out where the money was going.

When I returned to the camps again late in 1991 I went first to Kai Tak and Whitehead and was told there by workers for the International Red Cross -- unimpeachable sources, I thought, who were not in collusion with each other -- a story. The story was verified by some of the refugees who worked with them in the medical facilities of the camps. They told me that a couple of groups had shown up at the camps. Large groups of Vietnamese who had made it to the US in 1975. They arrived on air conditioned buses. One of the groups included two beauty queens, dressed not only in their large contest gowns but also wearing sparkling tiaras. They of course attracted the attention and fascination of the children and adults behind the barbed wire. The Red Cross workers told me that these groups had nothing for the camps and did not want to go inside and meet the refugees. Rather, they asked if they might "borrow" some of the refugee children for pictures. And this was provided in the expectation it might do some good. Several children were led out through the barbed wire gates. Everyone posed in front of the barbed wire, the queens and the businessmen and the fund raisers and the refugee children. And then to the amazement of the Red Cross workers, the children were ushered back inside the camp, and the visitors all got on their bus and waved goodbye. They left nothing for the camps. And they were never seen again. One young man in Kai Tak, who had very high hopes, broke down in tears when he told me this story. This young man, about 24 years old, was living inside a cardboard box in one of the barracks used to house the people. Since arriving in HK by boat, he had learned, Red Cross workers told me, 5 different languages, fluently. He already spoke Vietnamese, of course, but he had learned flawless Cantonese, Mandarin, English and French. He worked as a translator for the doctors in the medical facility. He expected so much of any western nation that might help and the uninspiring visitors from the US crushed many of his hopes. When I told him that he would become rich in the west some day, he laughed, and told me I was wrong. He said he would die a poor man, poor and unfortunate. I asked how he could think this being so fluent in so many languages. But he told me he was illiterate, he could read only Vietnamese. He said there were no language books available so he learned all of his foreign languages merely by listening and practicing. The reason this impressed me as well as the doctors and nurses in the camps was that this young man translated medical information flawlessly and seemed to have a superb manner and patience that would have made him a valuable physician. Yet he could not read. If there is a happy ending to this story it would involved a phone call I received about five years later from the sister of this young man. He was in Canada, Toronto, with her, she said. They had found sponsorship in and they were both working. She thanked me for what I had done. I did not ask her, but I did wonder what I had done? Told his story to others, I suppose. And someone who could do something, did it. End of story.

I do not mean to imply here that this was true of all of the organizations in America raising money for unassisted children and for boat people. The established international relief agencies were working wonders in providing clothing and food and classes and health care. The Red Cross and various Catholic organizations were prominent. But in no case -- in NO case -- did I find a single instance of an ad hoc agency established in the US to help the refugees or the boat people actually provide anything for them -- any money or clothing that was collected did not make it to those who needed the help. I questioned many of the refugees about help and assistance, many who were fluent in English also, and they knew of no group that helped them from the US.

And this is the rest of the story of the boat people as I saw them and I knew them. I wish I could have done more. I know that the people who worked with them gave their lives to the task and I can only hope that they are happy today in their memories. Surely, they earned a special place in heaven.

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