Former Sembawang camp refugee returns to find rescuers, thank them

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(Yen Siow, a former refugee from Vietnam, with an old photograph of her family taken near the Hawkins Road camp in Sembawang in 1980. Photo: Yahoo Singapore)

Yen Siow remembers being three years old and sitting on her mother’s shoulders in a boat that was full of water and floating on a stormy sea.

Adrift for five days and four nights in the South China Sea, she also recalls being hoisted onto her uncle’s back as he climbed a ladder to board a large ship, whose crew rescued the 82 Vietnamese refugees and transported them to Singapore.

Siow is a Vietnamese-Australian and a former refugee – one of the thousands of boat people who fled their home country amid the Vietnam War.

A significant chapter of Siow’s life began in October 1980, when she and her family were temporarily housed at 25 Hawkins Road, a refugee camp in Sembawang. She spent four months there with her parents, two siblings and some extended family members before they were sponsored to move to Australia in March 1981. Her parents and siblings still reside in Australia.

Now 39, Siow lives in Singapore and is searching for individuals and organisations that contributed to both her family’s welfare as well as that of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who passed through Singapore at one point or another.

Born Nguyen Thuy Hoang Yen, she tells Yahoo Singapore that her boat was rescued by a Norwegian oil tanker on 20 October 1980.

“I’m not here by accident. I wasn’t saved from this ship for no reason. I felt a compelling desire to go and find the rescuers and be thankful to them for steering the ship around and saving our lives,” she says.

Siow put out an appeal on a Facebook group for expatriate wives in Singapore seeking information on the ship.

With the help of some Norwegian expatriates in Singapore, she was able to locate the company that owned the ship which rescued her family, as well as the names of seven crew members who were on the ship – all within three days.

“This is really quite unique. There were hundreds of ships and this was 36 years ago. It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” she says.

She has been corresponding with two crew members from the ship, and hopes to meet them in Norway at the end of the year.

“Now that I’m back, I’m so grateful I have the chance to honour this country because Singapore took us in for four to five months as refugees… I was told that many ships passed us by.”

Tears welled in her eyes as she talked about the rescue.

“How did this one ship and the captain on the ship make such a big decision to turn around and reach out to us and say, ‘ You guys matter. You might be Vietnamese boat people but you matter to us and we’re going to rescue you.’”

She added that the ship’s crew also gave each of the 82 refugees on the boat a small $3 allowance per day while they lived at the refugee centre in Singapore.

“I don’t know how I could live if I could not pay respects to such people who saved my family like that,” she says.

“I want to tell the story that we are not here by accident. Our lives have purpose to it… I would love to share that story with other people – that I’m a product of someone’s kindness and generosity.”

Her own parents never talked about fleeing Vietnam, or their time at the Sembawang refugee camp.

“My parents have been silent about the boat experience and the war because it was too traumatic, so they never talked about it,” she explains.

Siow discovered pieces of her past only after she met her Singaporean husband, who often asked her father about how he escaped the war.

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(A photo belonging to Yen Siow showing the Norwegian oil tanker that rescued her family)

Life at Hawkins Road

The Hawkins Road refugee camp was a former British military barracks that was left unused until it was repurposed in 1978 to host the incoming boat people.

Managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the camp offered shelter to thousands of refugees. It was closed in 1996, with the premises demolished and the road name removed.

As of August 2016, a Facebook group connecting former refugees who passed through the Hawkins Road refugee camp is still active, with former refugees posting photos and videos of the site where the camp once stood. The area is now mostly covered in jungle vegetation.

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A photo of Yen Siow (centre) together with her family. The photo was taken near the Hawkins Road refugee camp. Siow said all the clothes they were wearing were donated to them. Photo courtesy of Yen Siow.

Siow has only vague recollections of the life in the camp. “I remember a hill, lots of grass and that’s it,” she admits.

Most of what Siow knows about the camp comes from the stories told by an older cousin who was also there. Families lived in shelters and slept on the floor, while others slept in tents at the camp.

Organisations, including churches and temples, donated items such as second-hand clothes for the refugees.

She hopes to connect with individuals – the volunteers and those from local organisations who helped the refugees – to thank them. This is a sentiment not shared by other former Vietnamese refugees she knows of.

“Even today, I feel that Vietnamese people don’t want to go and meet their rescuers because it is too painful… it’s a part of history they don’t want to remember. But I want to because it’s a significant part of my life I want to be grateful for, not ashamed of,” she asserted.

“I want to honour the countries who helped us – Norway, Singapore, Australia. Three nations came together to save us and give us a future.”

Siow, who is a Singapore permanent resident and runs a social enterprise, also makes it a point to regularly tell her own children about her past. She has three sons aged five, eight and 10.

“I remind them that our life is really precious. Some people’s lives start out very difficult. I explain to them that we always should be thankful and I remind them that if their grandfather didn’t take that risk to leave Vietnam with 82 people, including your mother, we wouldn’t be here today.”

If you remember helping the refugees at 25 Hawkins Road, Yen Siow would like to get in contact with you via her Facebook page.

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