A decades-long voyage by ex-Vietnamese refugee to reunite with rescuer

Former Vietnamese refugee Yen Siow with Bernhard Oyangen, one of her benefactors. Photo: Nicholas Yong

Months after former Vietnamese refugee Yen Siow launched a search for the Good Samaritans who rescued her family at sea in 1980, she has been reunited with one of them in Singapore.

“I gave him the biggest hug. For me it was like, wow I finally get the chance to meet my rescuer,” said 39-year-old Yen of her initial meeting with Norwegian Bernhard Oyangen, 54, at Changi Airport on Friday (21 October).

She added, “(I felt) jubilation and joy. Later on, when we drove home, I started crying.”

Oyangen was greeted at the airport by Yen and her three young sons, who held posters bearing images of the Norwegian flag and Yen’s family when they were refugees.

He told Yahoo Singapore, “I know what it’s like to be rescued at sea too.” By a strange twist of fate, Oyangen was rescued by helicopter from a freezing North Sea in January 1988, when his ship caught fire.

Asked what it was like to be reunited with Yen decades later, he said matter-of-factly, “When you are at sea, we have some rules at sea and we also have a tradition of good seamanship. Rescuing people at sea is just part of the job.”

36 years ago

The boat bearing 82 Vietnamese refugees that was rescued by the oil tanker Berge Tasta on 20 October, 1980. Photo: Yen Siow

Oyangen, who owns a business in the shipping industry now, is currently in transit in Singapore whilst on a business trip to New Zealand.

He was one of 29 crew members on the Norwegian oil tanker Berge Tasta, which stopped on 20 October, 1980, to rescue an overcrowded, flimsy boat filled with 82 Vietnamese refugees, who were fleeing from the communist regime in their country.

Yen, then just four years old, was on board the boat with 13 other family members. They had been adrift in the South China Sea for five days, said Yen. A lack of food and water even led the adults to cook rice with seawater, which became inedible.

“Many ships passed us by but only the Berge Tasta stopped to help us.”

After spending 10 days on board, the refugees were then housed at the old refugee camp in Hawkins Road in Sembawang. Yen and her family were eventually resettled in Australia in 1981. She is now based in Singapore with her Singaporean husband and their three young children.

Last month, Yahoo Singapore reported on Yen’s quest to find her rescuers, borne out of a desire to thank the individuals and organisations who had helped her family.

She contacted Oyangen thanks to the help of Real Expat Wives of Singapore, a Facebook group that helped her reach out to contacts in Norway. Four representatives of the group were hosted to lunch by Norwegian ambassador Tormod C. Endresen at a local restaurant on Monday, together with Yen and Oyangen.

A lasting legacy

Oyangen, Yen, Norwegian Ambassador Tormod C. Endresen and members of Real Expat Wives of Singapore. Photo: Nicholas Yong

It was an equally emotional experience for Yen’s extended family in Australia, when they spoke to her and Oyangen via a live video chat on Facebook.

“Their words were a hundred times ‘Thank you for helping us, for rescuing us’,” said Yen. She added with a laugh, They were saying to me in Viet, ‘Go buy him a present! Go get him the most expensive thing you can think of!’”

Yen will experience her catharsis again as she is planning to visit Norway next summer to meet the other crewmen she has found.

“They said, ‘We know that you are in distress, and we will take it upon ourselves to share our food, our clothes, and try to find you a safe place,’” said Yen.

“There are generations of children that have been impacted because of this one act of significant kindness and generosity.”