The Communists relax patrolling during monsoon as the sea’s rough, but there’s a two-week window in November when the sea’s calm so we set sail then. It was 1983.
On day two, we’re adrift for half a day due to mechanical failure.
I was allocated to live on the top floor of a two-storey tin-roofed house with four other girls. Another two men lived on the ground floor.
The house was built by previous refugees using wood salvaged from boats and from the forest.
My weekly ration was three six-ounce chicken (with bone) cans, three three-ounce sardine cans, three six-ounce pea cans, seven instant noodle packets, one thirteen-ounce condensed-milk can, 900 grams to 1.2 kilograms uncooked rice, 1/4 uncooked chicken, fist-size sugar and dried mung beans. Monthly, I got a fist-size piece of cabbage.
I had to queue every day for my portion of two-litre fresh water and use of the public latrine.
One day as I exchanged with an American UNHCR representative, George, outside the delegation interview room.
George then tried to persuade me to teach English because I didn’t feel confident, even though I’d taken extra English lessons for four years after leaving high school in 1979.
Eventually, without training or text-book, I taught during my three-month stay there.
Since my arrival, the first delegation to interview refugees was the Australian one that arrived in January, after the Christmas break.
I was sought as an interpreter for the delegate.
The delegate, Viktor, told me he worked for the Foreign Affairs Department and held a Politics degree.
He cited the UNHCR refugee definition, then interviewed me and I was accepted.
I busily worked with Viktor for two days from morning till afternoon.
There was a rumour on the island that the Australian delegate favoured single girls and families but if the annual quota was nearly reached, everyone could be rejected.
Most of the refugees interviewed were accepted but one family and a few men.
I received some simple thank you and some smiles from people who got acceptance.
I felt sad for those rejected. They’d have to apply with another delegation.
A few days later, I was watching a movie with the crowd in the open when water was thrown at me. I was approached by an angry man who said: “What kind of interpreting was that? You got me disapproved! Don’t you know how to help your people?”
As a naïve 21-year-old who never worked or lived apart from family, I was so shaken and upset by the event. I wanted to yell out that I was unjustly judged. I felt so lonely and vulnerable then!
Storm please stop ravaging wherein
Slim huts the vulnerable live in.
My people, English, may you gain,
Through lessons, my love, they contain.
Bye island, lonely as I came,
Bad memories, may I disclaim!
by UN Photo/John Isaac.