Once upon a Vietnamese refugee camp | Inquirer Opinion
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Once upon a Vietnamese refugee camp

We all have stories from the past that are just waiting to be told. I think of stories of the “boat people” I met at the Vietnamese refugee camp in Palawan, where I worked as a resettlement counselor for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) in 1986. They were tales of family separation, of incredible afflictions during the escape, of lives of misery in communist Vietnam. But they were also tales of friendship, of courage, of hope, and of love.

Such are the stories of my friends Xuan, Hung and Mai.


I remember when Xuan came into my life. One day, I noticed a pair of bright eyes staring at me through the wooden slats of my office window. “Good afternoon,” she greeted me. I asked what her name was. “My name Xuan, Nguyen Thi Xuan. I’m 10 years old,” she replied in her halting English.

After that encounter, Xuan became my constant visitor. She would come running after her class to update me on her lessons and other happenings in school in order to practice her English.  She would tell me about gossip in her neighborhood and just about anything she had heard recently in the camp. And she would also talk occasionally and with longing about Vietnam and the family she had left behind.


Xuan belonged to what we classified then in camp as “unaccompanied minors.” The grapevine had it that there was an unusual number of children like Xuan in camp at that time because their parents in Vietnam deliberately would let a minor son or daughter join an escape group by him/herself knowing that unaccompanied minors were given priority in resettlement. When the minor has been resettled in a foreign country, then she/he could reasonably request for a family reunion, which is readily granted.

Whether Xuan was one such child or not, I could not tell. Until one day, she came to see me when she should have been in class. I sensed right away that something was wrong. I did not have to ask as she volunteered the information.

“I am very sad,” Xuan said, then started to sob. She told me the story in her English-as-a-Second-Language English. She had just learned from a group of new arrivals that her parents, a brother and two sisters did not make it when their boat capsized in the middle of the South China Sea during their escape. I did not, could not, say anything. Before she could see me crying, I took Xuan in my arms and embraced her tightly while she wept on my shoulder.

Soon after that episode, the UNHCR resettled Xuan in the United States with a foster family. I have never heard from or about her since then. But only recently, after 27 years, I learned from a friend that Xuan is now happily married to another former Vietnamese refugee and is running a Vietnamese restaurant in California.

* * *

Nguyen Thanh Hung had been in camp for a long time and was considered a “long-stayer.” Some long-stayers in camp have become troublemakers, but not Hung. Instead of sulking, he immersed himself in volunteer work. His spoken English was above average, so he got assigned to act as interpreter for his fellow refugees in ESL classes.

In April 1986, I coordinated the Special Enhancement Program for long-stayers, in which Hung participated. He became my interpreter in the program and we immediately developed a friendship.


Hung never told me but I had been suspecting it all along: He was having a relationship with Mai, another single refugee in camp like him except that she was not a long-stayer but a rescue case. She was rescued at sea by Cap-A-Namur, a German rescue vessel. As such, she had guaranteed resettlement in Germany.

One day, Hung came to me with a long face. He asked permission to be absent from work. He had just learned that Mai’s departure had been scheduled, and he wanted to be with her. I learned from Hung later that Mai kept crying all the way from the departure lounge to her plane. Hung followed close to the tarmac and saw her waving from the plane’s porthole until the plane took off. He stood there until the plane disappeared from the horizon.

The day after Mai’s departure, Hung came to the office and requested to be absent from work for a few more days. He said he needed to rest as he could not sleep or eat for days before Mai left. Then he showed me the boat in a bottle that he had made for Mai but was not able to give her.

Because of Hung’s ability to speak English and his pleasant attitude, we recommended him for consideration by Canada even if he had no Canadian links. A month later, I received the interview list for Canada. Hung’s name was on the list!

Hung was interviewed and eventually was accepted for resettlement in Toronto.

Today, a replica of a refugee boat in a bottle is prominently displayed in our home in the Philippines to remind me of my Vietnamese friends and their stories. At the base of the boat a message reads: “To: Mr. Danilo Mendiola and family. Thank you. From: Nguyen Thanh Hung, PA# 1179, 1986, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines.”

Danilo G. Mendiola, 71, was a human resources and administrative executive until his retirement in 1997. He and his wife are now doing volunteer work for the Family Life Ministry in their parish in California in the United States. After his quintuple bypass in 2007, his children encouraged him to start a blog as a form of therapy during his recovery period, making him, he says, “an accidental writer.”

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TAGS: boat people, Global Nation, news, refugee, United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Vietnam, world issues
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