Story Of A Boat Person
Q. To begin, could you tell us a little about your personal background?
A. I was born in a little town called Binh Tuy, South Vietnam, in 1958. I have five brothers and two sisters. My parents, natives of a very strong Catholic village, fled from North Vietnam, in 1954.
Q. How did things work out for them?
A. Those who came from the same village in the North had a Catholic priest as leader who established a new settlement for the refugees. They turned this very poor, dry area of Binh Tuy into fertile farmland.
Q. What kind of memories have you from your war-time childhood?
A. They could be divided into three stages. The first was up to 1975 when I was becoming aware of something terrible happening around me. A very strong memory from that time is the funerals of so many young men in our villages. They got killed in the fighting. I remember seeing so many young wives and little children crying. Then at night there were the explosions and the fires; so often I had to run for cover with my family.
The second stage was 1975, the year South Vietnam was invaded by the North. I have terrible memories of flesh exploding and decaying; finding the leg of a soldier on the roof of our house; the awful smell.
The third stage was after 1975; supposedly peace time. I saw a lot of fathers arrested and taken to re-education camps. None of them returned home. I remember the fear at night when we’d hear a dog barking. In the morning someone would have been taken away from the village and sent to a camp. After that a lot of people began to try to escape abroad.
Q. How about your own family?
A. My father had been the captain of a ship but he resigned because he could not bear the threat of war. He became a taxi driver. He died when my mother was 38; 1 was 17. We all had to work to help her. She would buy small fish and cook them over charcoal and then take them to Saigon to sell. I myself became a fisherman. When the sea was rough I worked on the land.
Q. Eventually you decided to escape?
A. The Communists didn’t like us because we were Catholics. They labelled us as anti-revolutionaries. My family grew poorer because we could not get jobs. I tried to continue my education. I had to walk about eight kilometers to school every day for two years. Generally I ate nothing until I came home in the evening. One day on the way back from school I was arrested and taken to the police station; I didn’t understand why. I had done nothing wrong. This experience had a deep effect on me.
Then Vietnam went to war with Cambodia. We had just finished one war and now started another. Four of the boys in my family were of conscription age. I felt I had two options - flee to the forest and join the others, or escape abroad and speak up for my people.
This was 1979. Escape was costly. You needed three ounces of gold for each person. My family did not have this because my father had been ill for three years before he died.
At that time I was working as a fisherman. I spoke secretly to the owner of the boat and told him I wanted to escape. He told me he too wanted to escape. Because I had been with the Benedictines for some time he trusted me. After six months planning all was ready. Not everything went according to plan. My uncle took his girlfriend without telling us beforehand. He hid in the rice fields with the girl and a lot of dogs began to bark; we were scared we would be caught. That caused mistrust in the group. Eventually by some miracle we got away. I know that without God’s help it would never have been possible.
Q. Where did you hope to go to?
A. We just wanted to get out of Vietnam, we did not know to where. That first night on the boat was frightening. The sea was very dangerous. I vowed that if we failed I would never again try to escape by boat. Our plan had been to take 40 people but eventually there were 56 people in a 24-foot boat. During the night many ships passed but they ignored us. The first ship we saw in daylight was a Norwegian merchant ship called Mundogas Atlantic. We followed it for an hour but our engine could not cope with the speed and we had to give up. After a while, to our delight, we saw the ship turn around and come back. They took us on board.
Q. Did you ever find out why they changed their minds?
A. Apparently it was the captain’s wife who persuaded them. After that the crew were very kind to us but she was particularly kind, washing our clothes and looking after us. That same night there was a fierce storm. We would all have been drowned in the boat.
Eventually we arrived in Japan. None of us had paid money to anyone. We simply trusted in God and in each other.
Q. How many of your own family made their escape in the boat?
A. Three brothers, four uncles, two aunts and three cousins. In Japan we were sent to two refugee camps. Misono refugee camp was in Fujisawa close to a parish where the Columbans worked. This is how I came to meet Frs. Cathal Gallagher and Brian Vale. After nearly three years in Japan I decided to join the Columbans to become a missionary priest.
Some years previously, when I finished my high school education in Vietnam I had joined the Benedictines. At the time no one was allowed to live in a village other than their own. So after six months the local communists kicked me out and I had to go home. I gave up the thought of being a priest. While in the refugee camp in Japan I talked again with Cathal about the possibility of becoming a priest. I had already obtained a visa from the Government in Norway and was about to go there with my family. I took time to think things over and talked with my brothers. It was a big decision as it meant that I would be alone, something very difficult for one who comes from a close-knit family.
Q. Why did you opt to become a missionary priest rather than a priest based in one country?
A. Seeing what the Columbans did in that refugee camp impressed me a lot. Cathal was the first one to go there and befriend people. He communicated with us by body language; he ate what we offered him. He joined us in singing and played with the children. All
that was important to us Vietnamese. He brought a big group of Japanese to the camp to befriend us. He then started a campaign to raise funds to refurbish the camp. Like the rest of us he went out on the street with a collection box. After I joined and experienced something of missionary life I began to like it. My life became more meaningful and colorful and freer. I liked being able to work with the poor, to be free from an over-traditional church.
Q. Taiwan, your present assignment looks like a pretty difficult place for a missionary?
A. It is difficult for those who go there with the sole purpose of getting people to convert to Catholicism. But it is not difficult if you are ready to go into areas where the marginalized and down- trodden are. And there are plenty of them. My first ministry in Taiwan was working with homeless people in Taipei, in Chung Ho. When I first got there I could not believe that such a place existed in Taiwan. The smells were hard to take. But something told me that this was the place where I should work. I ended up working there full time.
About half the people were mentally handicapped and there were a lot of psychiatric cases and some physically handicapped adolescents. About a third were normal elderly people. It was really a detention centre. After a difficult beginning, the administration eventually accepted me and gave me freedom to work as I wished. I never ‘preached’ but after a time I found that I contributed to an improvement. Some corruption was exposed and a new administration took over. God works in mysterious ways. Presently I work there one day a week. My relations with them and their relations with one another are good.
Is Taiwan difficult for a missionary? It depends on how you see your own role and on how you go about trying to give witness to God’s love. When and if people are ready to believe in God they come forward.
Q. Have you ever been able to revisit Vietnam?
A. No because I am under suspicion as a human rights activist. I have spoken and demonstrated both in Japan and Australia for the rights of the Vietnamese and I am blacklisted. I’d love to go home, to do something for my own people. I have a dream of helping the home- less and handicapped children in Vietnam in the future. I now have the gift of freedom and would like to do something to bring that gift to the Vietnamese people.