Boat People

by - December 01, 2016

It's one of life's great jokes that Dad Pham can steer a rickety ship loaded with desperate refugees into open ocean, yet he can't drive a car in Australia. I'd always known my parents were Vietnam War refugees, but I only learned in recent years that Dad Pham was the one sailing the boat out to sea. I mean, he is a retired navy captain - it makes sense now that I know but it never crossed my mind until he volunteered the story. Like with all Dad facts, it was randomly and matter-of-factly dropped into the middle of a conversation about a beach trip.

Last Sunday I asked him if he was scared when he was on the boat. He answered, "No. I accepted my death before I left the shore. That's why so many people stayed behind - they couldn't face death. I knew I'd rather die at sea than live with the Viet Cong." I can't imagine being so desperate that I'd risk death for a small chance at a better life.

Soon after Dad was released from the 're-education camp,' he was approached by people who had a boat but no one to drive it. They promised him money in exchange for his help, but they and Dad knew they couldn't afford to pay him. Being a former prisoner of war, Dad and anyone he associated with would be persecuted if he stayed. He made the tough decision to leave his family and friends behind.

Dad couldn't tell many people he planned to leave because whispers of fleeing could lead to persecution or execution. He did tell the woman he was in love with. She was a secret love not even her brothers knew about. He asked her to come with him but she didn't want to leave her parents behind. They reconnected over email recently and Dad doesn't know how to use email so I was his go-between, which is the only reason I learned about her. She's now a successful chef at a Western hotel in Vietnam.

When the time came to go, Dad snuck a rickety fishing boat filled to the brim with refugees out into the ocean. He knew the busy thoroughfare in open ocean beyond Vietnam's borders where commercial ships traveled and that's where he navigated towards. They risked pirates, drowning, dehydration, starvation along the way; and when they reached their destination they risked abandonment as dozens of ships avoided the refugee boats for political, economical, social, whatever reasons. Dad always says his trip was blessed by God because of the many moments things could have gone bad but didn't. I knew kids in school who weren't so lucky - one witnessed his father's decapitation by pirates so I don't get mad that he went on to hurt me in primary school. Hurt people hurt others - it's a sad life cycle I refuse to perpetuate.

When they reached the thoroughfare, Dad Pham watched dozens of ships ignore their pleas for help. Finally, he made the men on the boat take down the cloth shades that provided some protection from the sun to reveal the people aboard the boat. His idea worked. Showing the passing ships that his boat carried mainly women and children is the reason a German commercial ship stopped to rescue them.

The photo is of Dad in Singapore where the German ship took all the refugees from Dad's boat while they waited to be processed as refugees and flown to Europe. I'll tell you about his journey from Singapore to Germany in the next episode, and how he found faith after witnessing the worst in humanity.


If you want to start from the beginning of Phamly history, read:
Part 1 - O Captain! My Captain! Dad Pham's navy days during the Vietnam War.
Part 2 - P.O.W. Viet Cong Re-education Camp Dad Pham's time as a prisoner of war.
Part 3 - Living with Viet Cong Mum Pham's experience with communism.
Part 4 - Boat People Dad Pham seeks refuge after the war.
Part 5 - Finding Faith Dad finds peace.
Part 6 - When Herr met Frau - Dad Pham meets Mum Pham.
Part 7 - Life in Germany: the early years - Dad Pham sets up life in Germany.
Part 8 - Life in Germany: the later years - Dad gets sick, Mum steps up.
Part 9 - Getting ready for Australia - Mum Pham is on a mission.
Part 10 - Coming to Australia - My first memories of Australia.
Part 11 - Live in Brisbane the first time - The story of why we left Brisbane.
Part 12 - Moving to Melbourne - First impressions.
Part 13 - Life in Melbourne - Dad Pham - The good old days.
Part 14 - The Other Phams - Our neighbours in Melbourne were Phams too.
Part 15 - Life in Melbourne - Mum Pham - Our Sunday Phamly traditions began in Melbourne.
Part 16 - Cats On A Train - Moving to Brisbane
Part 17 - Sleepwalking Scare - Moving to Brisbane continued
Part 18 - A House in Brisbane - Moving to Brisbane continued some more

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  1. Thank you for sharing your Dad's story :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jilly. It's crazy to think this was just one generation ago, and now it's so much harder for people to seek refuge anywhere around the world.