Rocky Lim / Sydney

Today is World Refugee Day – the 58th Anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In his 2009 World Refugee Day message, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres reminded us that refugees are not faceless statistics. Each of them has a very human story to tell. In this TOCI Special, guest author Rocky Lim shares the story of his refugee-friend Wan.

WAN WAS borne in 1964 in Laos. He grew up in a small village near the Laos-Thailand border in the Northwestern part of the country. He became a refugee in Thailand and Australia, ironically after the Laotian Civil War (1953-1975).

He may be a refugee twice but he isn’t one in his heart. That is because he is ingenious in discovering life and making it interesting.

During the Laotian Civil War, Wan’s father served as a combatant with the American forces. His dad would come back now and then to see the family. It was a joyous occasion for everyone in the family – a celebration that everyone was alive, especially for his father who had to observe so many of his comrades die in battle.

This routine went on for many years and it finally ended in 1975. His father came back and it appears that he will stay home for good. The United States had to adhere to the 1973 Paris Peace Accord and withdraw American troops from Laos.

However, the Laotians who fought on the victorious Communist front began to give his father trouble. In 1976, Wan’s father took his family and other relatives in the dead of night across the border into Thailand to seek refuge.

Wan found himself in a refugee camp. Miserable or not, life in a refugee camp depends how one makes of it. He took it as an adventure and began to explore the big refugee camp. The camp was teeming with thousands of refugees from various ethnic groups. He learned Hmong from his neighbours and became friendly with the Royal Thai Army camp guards. He was also very friendly to members of the Yao ethnic group. Sneaking out was not a problem. Wan regularly visited relatives in Chiang Rai City of Thailand’s Changwat Province.

As a teenager, Wan’s refugee status didn’t hinder his interest in the opposite sex. He courted Hmong, Yao and Thai girls in and outside the refugee camp. Wan recalled, ”I would approach a Yao girl for a customary meeting in the dead of night. I had to know where she was sleeping [in the refugee camp]. At her doorway, I would take off my shoes to show that she been booked.

Then I enter her room, lie down and just talk to her. I would leave when it is dawn.” This is a normal activity part of the Yao ethnic group’s growing up process. Regarding the Hmong, he would shine his torchlight into a Hmong girl’s bedroom and wait for her to come out of the house. Then they would chat, talk and flirt.

At the later stage of his teenage years, he pushed up his age by a few years in order to enlist in the Royal Thai Army. On completion of his training, he was sent to the Thai-Cambodian border. For many years, he wondered why the top brass stationed him there. The truth is that he was a member of a shock troop formation whose role is to push back the expected invasion force of the Vietnamese army. This was during the time of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War which ended in the late 1980s.

Fortunately for Wan, the Vietnamese Army never came close to the Thai-Cambodian Border. He only became conscious of the fact that it was Chinese military activities along the Vietnamese-Chinese Border that saved his life after I told him in a 2003 conversation that Vietnam had sent its best forces to roll back China. Skirmishes between Chinese and Vietnamese military continued in the 1980s after the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.

(Photo: Abandoned by the US Army, Laotian combatants of the US Army are praying for salvation from the Communists)

As his unit’s point man, Wan was positioned a good distance ahead of his unit when they are out on patrol. He was sure that he would meet certain death if he was ordered to face the aggressive Vietnamese forces.

Wan was demobilised after a 6-year stint with the Royal Thai Army. He returned to the refugee camp where his family was based at. It was during this time that he took a fancy to a Thai lady and married her. They soon had a daughter. Having a family made him think of his future. He applied for emigration to Australia. The small and young family found themselves in Sydney, where he studied English and found a factory job to sustain his family.

A few years later he met an Aussie girl who was still schooling. He waited for her to finish university before marrying her. By this time, he had divorced his Thai wife. Wan gave her as much as he could. He bought a nice house and went on skiing trips in winter with her. He started a family again and she bore him a son. However, there were strains in their relationship and it ended in divorce. Wan was alone again.

Wan gave up on women and became more determined than ever to give his all to his siblings and cousins who went back to their native village. He bought land, reared fish in the fish ponds, built chalets and a restaurant to serve the local clientèle. He was often on the lookout to get them to go into other businesses. He became the driving force in his family. He wanted his own kith and kin to be well-educated. He provided monetary support to his siblings and cousins, so that they can attend the local colleges and universities. Three had graduated and more will be graduating soon.

Today, as the sole breadwinner, he is responsible for feeding and housing 25 members of his household. The money comes from his work in Australia. He works long hours and saves as much as possible. He flies back regularly to Laos to spend time with his household once every few months. While his love life has been a source of trouble, he found joy and solace in his devotion to household. This pattern of life has been going on for the last few years. I really admire his devotion to his family. As his buddy, I wish him well for his future endeavours.

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