We have heard stories of similarly desperate boat people escaping out of the communist Vietnam. Out in the sea, our main fears were the pirates - who will not hesitate to rob, rape, beat and murder - on top of the natural hardships of starvation, thirst and sea sickness. But we don't have any choice. Many of us ethnic Chinese who remained in Vietnam were persecuted by the locals. After collecting all the cash and valuables my parents had, my family realized that there was only enough money for three people to go. In the end, it was decided that my brother, eldest sister and myself was to go, giving the opportunity to the younger generation to make a better life in the outside world. My parents remained in Vietnam with my youngest brother, then still a toddler. Although I was very reluctant to leave for obvious reasons, my parents insisted. Crying, my brother and sister pulled me aboard.
Traveling in the open sea in monsoon season in an overcrowded boat was a harrowing experience. Since we did not have any adults to protect us, we were often bullied. By the second day, our remaining food was stolen by another refugee. My sister wisely hid the gold and precious stones that would determine our survival. Sadly, my brother could not survive the traumatic journey. He was thrown out into the open sea on a dark night.
There was nothing my sister and I could do, but to grieve silently. Luck was with our group. Not only did we survive the open sea without any sign of pirates, but we arrived at Pulau Bidong without any trouble. We took about a week while some other boats spent one or two months being tossed and turned by the waves.
As our boat approached the island to dock, we were given a warm, yet strange welcome by other survivors. They indiscreetly scrutinized us as we treaded gingerly, looking out for relatives and friends, on the white sandy beach.
Despite having my sister to take care of me, I missed my family terribly. Imagine a seven year old child with a twelve year old sister, wondering about the safety of our family members back in Vietnam! We also did not know how to tell my parents that our brother drowned on the way here.
However, my time on Bidong was gainfully occupied. I studied at a school in the camp which prepared the refugees for resettlement. My sister and I took English lessons to prepare ourselves for repatriation to a third country. We were also lucky to meet up with some old neighbors, who soon took us under their wings.
Waiting for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to process our application for asylum in Australia took nearly two years. It was an agonizing wait - what will happen to us if our application is rejected?
Again, lady luck smiled at us. Our applications were approved and we sailed to Australia. In due time, my parents and younger brother joined us in Melbourne. And I've been here till today."
. . . Eric, Tour Guide in Australia.
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Pulau Bidong has been the centre for Vietnamese refugees during the war. The last Vietnamese were sent home in 1996. It is said that this small island once houses approximately forty thousand refugees. The over population which almost rob the entire island's vegitation. Now the trees are growing again, the island is recuperating and the intruders has left. Only few volunteers still remain on the island to check on visitors to ensure their safety.