Fighting back the tears, a young woman told me about the oppression she had fled. Along with her brother and sister she had risked her life to make the long and torturous journey to freedom.
Although she was traumatised by the horrors she had faced she was relieved to have been given sanctuary in a safe country.
I met Lai Quinn and her sister in 1982, she was one of the tens of thousands of refugees who had fled brutal communist regimes in South-East Asia in the wake of the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh.
Like most people I have found the images of the little boy’s body on the beach and the mass of people desperate to reach a safe destination distressing and moving. However, my experience of working with refugees from South-East Asia also gives me hope for the future.
I was in my late teens when the news about the so called ‘Boat People’ fleeing Vietnam via the South-China Sea began to emerge.
There were also reports of people fleeing to refugee camps in Cambodia, because the Khmer rouge regime – which bore chilling similarities to ISIS – had slaughtered vast swathes of the population and turned the country into a massive labour camp.
Although I felt helpless in the face of all this, I made it a matter of prayer and took an active interest in what was happening.
I was in the last year of my A Levels and given a work experience placement in a local school. Not quite knowing what to do with me, the teacher I was assigned to asked me to help a Vietnamese refugee child with her reading. Suddenly I felt as if – in a very small way – I was doing something to help.
A few months later I met Maurice Vitty. He had been on the OM ship – the Logos – which had rescued a boat crammed with refugees in the South-China Sea. On his return he visited all the people they rescued who had been settled in the UK and started a charity called Christian Care Projects.
The idea was brilliantly simple: encourage people to show care to refugees from South-East Asia, which is where Hazel and I came in. We were young and inexperienced but willing to play our small part in coming alongside these people and got involved with two families.
This involved visiting their homes, eating and watching TV with them and helping with paperwork. We listened to some very sad stories, not only about the brutality of the regimes they had fled but the inhumanity and sadism of the pirates in the South-China Sea who preyed on weak and vulnerable people. Over the months we became great friends with the families we visited. We loved to learn about their culture and sample their cuisine. In return we introduced them to exotic English dishes–like fish and chips and Christmas dinner.
My lasting impression is that these were delightful people who were prepared to work hard to provide a new life for their children.
I truly hope that many of the refugees we are seeing on the current news reports will be welcomed here and that we can offer them the hand of friendship.