28 April 2005 On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the United Nations refugee agency today highlighted the success story of one of its veteran alumni, a 6-year-old Vietnamese boy who fled in his pyjamas aboard a dangerously overcrowded boat and now works as a doctor improving childbirth practices on the Tibetan plateau.
With his progress, he hopes to shatter preconceptions and prejudices besetting refugees.
Tran Nguyen Toan left his homeland on 17 November 1977 in the family’s eighth attempt – the others failed because the fishing boat failed to arrive or the police showed up – after his father, a businessman, realized that under the new communist regime things would be extremely difficult and became a fisherman to get the chance to leave.
What was meant to be a relatively short journey to the Philippines turned into a two-week odyssey in which the their boat, capable of carrying 40 but with three times that number, was buffeted by three huge storms southwards towards Malaysia, the only one of nine craft that left in that period to make it.
After they hit the shore of Terranganu on Malaysia’s east coast, ethnic Chinese found them on the beach and gave them clothes and food, but the police came, beat up the village leader and took the refugees to a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp on Palau Besar, an island off the coast.
After nine months there, Toan, his father and sister were accepted as refugees by Switzerland where his elder sister was studying in Lausanne. The first thing the family did was to file the papers to get Toan’s mother to join them. That took four long years.
“I feel very grateful to UNHCR because they really changed our lives,” Mr. Tran said on a recent visit back to Switzerland, where he eventually went to medical school. “We could have been some of those boat people pushed back, and luckily the storm kept the pirates away. Such a dramatic experience carves your way of thinking and feeling, you come to appreciate things.”
After post-graduate work at McGill University in Canada, he continued with family medicine in Utah in the United States, working with deprived Latino immigrants for three years. When he had the chance to work on the Tibetan plateau for a non-governmental organization (NGO) called One Heart, focusing on maternal and child health around the time of childbirth in nomadic and rural populations, he seized it and has been working there for four years.
His choice surprises many of his relatives who wonder why he doesn’t live in the US, practice medicine, buy a big car and home – the Vietnamese refugee dream.
But being a refugee creates a bond. “I feel so deeply for them and those in Tibet,” he says. “I meet ex-refugees who’ve returned from India and we spend a lot of time talking about things – this connection of being immigrants and vagabonds and sharing our lives. I have a deep level of compassion for them.”
Mr. Tran has chosen an unconventional but personally rewarding career path, one that allows him to shatter preconceptions about refugees. “I love provoking people in high society and showing them that immigrants and refugees are not parasites of society,” he explains.
“They see a living example which counteracts their beliefs. They live so much in fear of being invaded. But I say we have so much to offer – our adaptability and ability to be positively creative, like what I do in Tibet, and to find the right level to work at. A great yeast for making bread.”
In all, nearly 255,000 Vietnamese boat people were given temporary asylum in Malaysia, where they were cared for by UNHCR, the Malaysian authorities and the Malaysian Red Crescent Society. A total of 248,410 were resettled in western countries while over 9,000 returned to Viet Nam.