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Life of Dad MAG
One day I was in the car with my dad, on our way home. I was talking animatedly about a book I had just read, Life of Pi, which you probably know is a survival story about a boy stranded on a life raft with a tiger.
“Write my story,” my dad joked. “I could have my own book, even better than that boy with the tiger.”
Although he was kidding, I thought it was a good idea. I wanted to tell others about my dad's dangerous, epic journey – a story that rivals Jason's or Odysseus' in my eyes. Dad had often told me about his experiences as a refugee, each time fleshing out different details, but always with the same harrowing narrative.
It all began long ago, just after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. North Vietnam, which supported communism, had just taken over South Vietnam, and it wasn't until 1978 that the people of the South began to realize just how inadequately the communist government ruled.
My dad – then 15 – fled Vietnam to find a safer, better life with his brother and uncle, who owned a boat. Many Vietnamese citizens, including half of my father's family, were unable to leave and remain under North Vietnam's oppressive reign even today. Others paid to get on the boat. The voyage to reach safe neighboring countries like Malaysia or Indonesia was expected to take about two days, but terrible luck loomed over the voyage like a thunder cloud.
The refugees sat quietly shoulder to shoulder with their knees against their chests. Three hundred men, women, and children crowded the boat, leaving little room for anyone to move.
Taking advantage of the political unrest, modern-day Thai pirates sailed the waters to intercept escaping Vietnamese boats, loot them of valuables, and more often than not, brutally kill the refugees. One of these ships stopped my dad's boat as they crossed the South China Sea.
The pirates robbed the refugees on my dad's boat of whatever money and gold they had (which they had intended to use to begin new lives), broke everything, including the motor, and attacked women. Then they left the refugees stranded on the open sea, though thankfully alive. All in all, they were lucky.
They put up an emergency sail to replace the broken engine, but bad luck once again struck. Another pirate ship looted them, and the thieves broke the sail and left them stranded a second time.
Although the Western countries had sent Navy ships to deter the pirates, my father's boat was plundered over and over – pirates finding the last gold coins tucked safely in a child's shirt, or morsels of food hidden by a mother – until there was nothing left except starving refugees. One pirate ship punched a hole in my dad's boat to make it sink. In sheer desperation, the passengers used buckets to bail the water, taking turns round the clock just to stay afloat.
With no food left, men, women, and children starved. “Children were so hungry that they would look for uncooked pieces of rice on the floor to eat,” my dad explained somberly. “But every time I thought I was going to die, somehow, it would rain just in time and we would collect the water.”
For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably a month, they survived on rain water and floated on the open sea, going whichever way the current pleased.
At last, a lucky day came when a fishing boat found them and towed their broken boat to Malaysia. The police took the refugees to a military camp, where they were evaluated for transfer to other countries. They remained there for two months, but no one was transferred. Eventually, officials told them they would be towed to an island where other refugees lived. It would only take one to two days, the officials claimed.
Three days and no islands in sight, they knew something was wrong. The boat towing them cut the line and left them stranded in the open sea again, in the same broken vessel they had used to escape from Vietnam. However, this time, the conditions were worse; storms and rough seas threatened to capsize them. It was tropical season, and the violent sea bore no regard for the tiny boat filled with terrified refugees.
My dad discovered later that the Malaysian government had done this to all the refugees they sheltered because the UN had not given them the relief money they had demanded.
The passengers somehow managed to fix the engine, and they flagged down a fishing boat for some oil. Then they continued their search for land. One day, they spotted an island and a submarine with a soldier waving a flag in the air.
“Nobody knew what it meant, so we continued toward them until they opened fire,” my father recalled. “Everyone dropped to the deck. They approached us in a small boat. We were terrified that they were enemies.”
However, when the soldiers boarded their boat and the refugees somehow explained what they were doing, the soldiers agreed to tow them to another island. Although this sounds like good news, the refugees were terrified of being towed again, especially when they were so near shore. They threatened to jump overboard and swim to shore, so the soldiers took them to the nearby island.
When my dad finally left the boat, he was so weak and unused to walking that he had to crawl on his hands and knees. Since he hadn't eaten for so long, he was not allowed solid food and had to settle for soup.
During the next three months, the refugees mingled with the Indonesian locals and managed to survive by catching fish, picking fruit, eating canned food they were given by the soldiers, drinking from a waterfall, and making campfires and shelter.
Eventually, the soldiers relocated my father's group to a larger island where more refugees lived while they waited to be accepted into a first-world country. Meanwhile, life continued, and the refugees built a thriving community on the island, complete with barracks, convenience stores, coffee shops, schools, temples, and other businesses. This become their lives as they waited for years to be accepted into safe countries like Canada, America, and Australia.
Refugees could apply for asylum to whichever country they wanted, but they could only do it one at a time. Sometimes they heard back quickly, but many were stuck in limbo for a long time, depending on the country. More popular countries had longer wait times.
Eventually, my dad's relatives went to Australia. My dad and his brother weren't able to go with them because Australia didn't accept lone minors, and his relatives didn't want the responsibility of caring for them. So the brothers journeyed to Canada and began a new life in Toronto, Ontario.
I am grateful for this turn of events because Canada is my home, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. And if my dad hadn't come to Canada, my parents would not have met, and I wouldn't have been born.
More than twenty people died on that journey, and I am so grateful my dad was one of the survivors. I am glad that he is here today to laugh when I make funny faces behind my mom's back. I am grateful he is here to give me hugs and kisses, whether I want them or not. I am so grateful.
I love you, Dad.