The story of a survivor tells of the trials and tribulations that the author went through as a refugee in Hong Kong. Today Hazel's attitude towards life and her integrity is evidence of her strength and courage. I was pleased to have assisted the Torture: Asian and Global Perspective magazine in the preparation of this article.
(There are millions of stories of people who have narrowly escaped death and struggled to survive. This is a story about a one such survivor who went through a tremendous struggle in her life due to the social disorder in her country of origin. This is the story of Ms. Hazel Le who came from Vietnam, and who spent years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong during the post-Vietnam war period.)
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, many people in our country headed to neighboring countries, like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong by boat to seek a stable life and a chance to improve their futures. My mother and I sought refugee status in Hong Kong as we heard that it was usually granted and the applicants were eventually accepted by Western countries.
We have been living in Hong Kong for almost 20 years now and seldom talk about the old days since it was a terrible time which we do not want to recall. In 1990, when I was seven, we took a boat from Vietnam to Hong Kong. We were interned in “closed camps” for almost four years as possibilities for resettlement to third countries dwindled. The word “freedom or die” kept repeatedly going through my mind. During the late 1990s, the Hong Kong government began the Bắt đầu từ nay broadcast radio announcement as an attempt to deter Vietnamese migrants from making their way to Hong Kong. I witness many refugees going on a hunger strike to fight for their freedom. In those four years, we experienced strikes, demonstrations and relocation to different refugee camp sites in Hong Kong. I saw people that were repatriated, some got the permission go to a third country but we were one of the fortunate cases in that we were permitted to settle in Hong Kong.
The time in the refugee camp
The word 'freedom' means a lot to me for without it there is little we can do in our lives. The daily topic of conversation was how to escape by climbing over the tall chain link fence. This was not only because we wanted freedom but also because we wanted to escaped from the life in the camp. The conditions in the refugee camps were terrible. There was theft and fights between the refugees every day. The hygiene conditions were also horrible. If winning the Mark Six (the local government lottery) is the dream of every Hong Konger then gaining freedom in a third country was the dream of every Vietnamese refugee. It was not uncommon for people to commit suicide when they learned that they were to be repatriated. I can understand how they felt because some of them had been in the camp for many years. They had spent their whole life saving to come here to seek a better future only to find that their hopes and dreams had been crushed. The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness were prevalent, especially for the children. The only thing we could do was wait and hope.
Life outside of the camp
When I was a teenager, I seldom told others of my nationality and where I was born because I was ashamed of being Vietnamese. Even today there are lots of negative impressions of Vietnamese; that we committed terrible crimes, wasted the country's resources and simply dumped our burden on society. On several occasions I heard of the reactions that some people faced when they revealed that they were from Vietnam.
However, it is no exaggeration to say that we faced real difficulties over the language barrier and racial discrimination. I was unable to enter a school because I was older than the other students. My life was set back four years during the time I spend in the refugee camp. There was only sorrow, hopelessness, depression and tension during those years.
I began to search for meaning of life and realised that education was the only the way out of the darkness. But that gate remained closed for long period. The situation was grim, I experienced a sense of emptiness and felt as if I had no strength with which to overcome the difficulties life presented. Like many people we had dreams and it was only those dreams that kept us going and prevented us from remembering the pain of our daily lives.
Meanwhile, my mother was unable to find a job because everything here was new to her; we were unable to find a house because people had grave concerns for their personal security and they were scared of Vietnamese. There was no support from the government for people like us. If there was it was well hidden and we had no idea of how to access it. It is truly ironic that for the first two years we have to depend on financial assistance from our family in Vietnam.
There was a time when I wished I could return to my homeland, because at least we would not have to face all these obstacles and the discrimination. My mother is a strong and energetic woman, she insisted that at least we make the effort to live here because deserved the freedom that we had been fighting and waiting for, for so long. So we made every effort to survive in this new environment. Once she able to get a job in a restaurant, she immediately sent me to a private education centre to learn Chinese and English. Meanwhile, we kept relocating very often, because the landlords kept increasing our rent just because we are Vietnamese.
When I wasn't attending lessons most of the time I was stayed at home with the lady landlord who prepared lunch and dinner for me as my mother paid her to take care of me. In my childhood I did not have much in the way of entertainment, what little I did have consisted of the television we had in our room. I loved watching television and that is one reason why I can speak very fluent Cantonese. After striving for two years I was qualified to enter the fourth grade of the local school.
I grew up in Hong Kong and I have ‘established’ my life in this city. I belong to it; it has become a part of me. After being here for decades, I believe I’m a 'Hong Konger' rather than a Vietnamese because really, I know so little about Vietnam. In Hong Kong, we have strived hard to build our home and our future, and the space we set aside for us to find the meaning of life made us realise that we love this city. The anxiety we experienced in the past has evaporated and we now have new hopes and dreams. At the same time these new hopes and dreams make us realise the gratitude we have towards the people and government of Hong Kong.