It took us the better part of a day to arrive at a refugee camp in Malaysia on the island of Pulau Bidong. It would become our home for over five months.
It was here that I came to know that there was a God who was watching over every step of my life. I came to know that He is real, and that He has so much compassion for me.
I discovered that God leads me into the life that He wants for me.
God’s Hand On My Life
There were a thousand refugees who came out to welcome us to the island. The refugee population at the time was well over fifteen thousand. We thought that was a lot but we heard, a year later, this number had risen to thirty thousand. At that time, some people didn’t even have a place to sleep. The camp was so overwhelmed that many boats had to be turned away.
Our boat was given the name THO 592. The first 3 letters made reference to the captain’s name and the number 592 indicated that ours was the five hundred and ninety-second vessel to arrive on the island.
The United Nations estimated that there were approximately 1.5 million people who had escaped from Vietnam and the number of people that arrived safely at refugee camps was only three hundred fifty thousand!!
If God hadn’t watched over me I wouldn’t be here to relate these sobering numbers.
We were assigned a small plastic hut to live in, and we were supplied with food. Every two weeks we received a new package of food to eat.
Due to the massive population on the island our family never had enough food or fresh water. My brothers and I were always hungry.
I’d been a spoiled rich kid in Vietnam. Now, I went out every day scrounging for food. I realized that in order to survive, I needed to hunt for jobs that would provide more food for my family.
It seemed that every day a new delegation would arrive from the United Nations. These represented about thirty-five countries. They came to the island to interview the refugees and offer help. Additionally, there were family members or representatives from churches who had come to offer sponsorship.
Our family was repeatedly rejected by the delegations, without explanation. It left us with little certainty for the future. Our plight, and the harsh reality of the conditions that we had to endure, left me totally confused and deeply depressed.
This raised many questions for me about God and about different religions. Though I searched, I couldn’t seem to find any answers.
A Job and Unanswered Questions
There wasn’t much work to be found on the island. So when I finally found a job that would give me additional food I was elated. I was tasked with welcoming newcomers and checking out the refugees.
Every day I witnessed refugees arriving in horrible conditions. Some were so hungry, and in such poor condition that they were barely able to walk, or even to stand. I saw desperate people clinging to their loved ones who were no longer alive. Some had been in the ocean for many weeks and they could barely remember the reason for their escape.
Seeing so much pain and suffering made me question why bad things happen to good people.
The other part of my job was to check out those who were preparing to leave the island in order to secure residence in a new country. I was happy to see the refugees finally leave the island, but I was also sad, wondering when it would be my turn. There would often be a thousand people gathered at the beach to say farewell to those who were leaving. There were many handshakes, hugs, and tears. We didn’t know if we’d ever see one another again.
An Unexpected Letter
One day I received a long and unexpected letter. It came from the young girl of the family with whom my father had made the initial escape plan. She was in the hospital in one of the refugee camps in Thailand. She said that she was happy to learn that I had arrived safely in Malaysia, and told me everything about her trip.
She said that half of the people didn’t make it to the camp. Most of the men were killed and thrown into the sea. Her own boat was overtaken by pirates six times and every time, she was raped.
She lost everything that she’d brought with her on the boat and she lost her innocence. That was the cost of freedom for her.
Was it worth it? Was it a fair trade? It made me mad!! I had so many questions for God. I couldn’t understand how He could allow something like this to happen.
God has finally answered my queries, and it is so wonderful. Through His work I have slowly been able to see that things happen for a reason—for reasons that might be beyond what we’re initially able to comprehend.
When God Answers
One family’s story hit me hard, and I’ll never forget it. This young family of four was accepted into Australia and they were preparing to leave. They had everything ready to begin their new life. The night before their departure, there was a big storm. The heavy rain and howling wind knocked down many trees. One of them fell on the hut that sheltered this family. It struck the two children and killed them instantly.
The following day when I was at the Jetty Bridge expecting to check them out I saw the wife. She was faint from crying. The husband held my hand and said, “Dear friend, I spent everything I had in my life in order to bring my family here. I escaped because I wanted a better future for my two kids. Now they are laid down in this camp forever. Please give me a reason why we should go to Australia.”
Soaking in his words, I wondered how I could continue to do my job. I was mad, and I was angry at everything. I had so many questions that I wanted to ask God, “Why?”
God had the answer for me. He comforted me through the next story that I want to relate.
One day someone approached me and asked if I would be willing to help out with an event. I told them that I was willing to anything in order to get extra food for my family.
I was approached because they needed someone who was a strong swimmer, and someone who would be available to be in the water for the whole day. I accepted the job and they took me to a place called Religions Hill. At the site, there was a temple, a church, and a monument that displayed five boats joined together. If I hadn’t taken the job I would never have known about this place.
After having witnessed all the horrendous sights and circumstances on the island I didn’t really believe in anything. I was at this site simply because it was a means for me to get food to survive.
The Baptismal Service
I was taken to an area behind the church. The water was rough here, and there were rocks everywhere, both above and under the water. This was the chosen place to hold a baptismal service. My job was to stand by the edge of the rocks to protect the people from injury.
I was standing waist-deep in water. We stood holding hands to ensure that no one would drown. I was there for the entire day witnessing the whole service.
In reality, I thought those people were crazy—just nuts!! A short time earlier they had been fighting to survive in the rough sea and now they were willingly going back into the water to show their commitment to God.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, that after they gave their life to Christ they were so happy and peaceful. Witnessing their acceptance of Christ was such a beautiful thing. I’ll never forget this.
At the time, I wondered, though, why I was there. I had no clue. Had God taken me there for a reason?
I now believe that none of this was coincidence.
God’s hand was in all of it. He was leading me, step by step, to walk with Him. “The Lord is my Shepherd….I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures…..”
A Boy Named David
Not long after the baptismal service I was wandering around the island and I met a little boy named David. He had a sad face, he was quiet, and he looked lonely. When I learned his story, I took him in as my little brother.
David had left Vietnam in a fishing boat with his younger sister and a handful of others. His uncle was the captain of the boat.
When they arrived at the island they were initially turned away. People were refused because there were now forty-five thousand refugees.
In an attempt to improve their chances of being allowed to stay at the camp, some people suggested breaking up their boat and swimming to shore. The captain relented, and they proceeded to dash the craft to pieces. David’s uncle then instructed his nephew to grab a floater and to swim to shore. He assured David that he would look after his little sister.
That was the last time David saw his uncle and his sister. Everyone else made their way to safety.
The following day two bodies floated onto the shore, and it was noted that they were the bodies of David’s sister and his uncle. The captain had tried to save his niece, and in the process they both drowned.
Imagine you were David’s age, and you woke up every day unable to find anyone that you knew. I guessed that sometimes David probably wished that he didn’t have to wake up. He just wished that he could go home and live like a normal boy.
David and I became brothers and we did everything together. He often asked when his family would come to see him. That was the hardest question that I had to face.
Each day we would go around discovering the island. We went swimming, fishing, and hiking; and we grew vegetables. In time, I noticed a smile on David’s face.
The Mission Lady
When Dave and I wandered through the camp we met an American whose name was Rosemary. We began talking with her and we got to know her. Rosemary was an Education Advisor with United Nations. She was from Philadelphia. We learned that she was the only girl in her family of six. Rosemary was one of the volunteers that I was blessed to call my friend. I believe that God sent her to protect me.
I suspect that Rosemary was just a normal girl who regularly attended church and then one day she heard God calling her to go on a mission trip to help the Vietnamese refugees. She left all of the comforts of home to spend endless hours in the refugee camp. Each day she walked among fifteen thousand people to help them get back on their feet.
Rosemary looked after all of the English classes to ensure that they were running as smoothly as possible. She also gave the refugees advice to help to prepare them for their lives in a new country.
Rosemary asked us to be her bodyguard when she went swimming at the beach. She also asked us why we never wanted to go to class and study English. I told her I that I didn’t like to be in the classroom. I also told her about David’s situation, and that I just wanted to be a big brother for him.
I wondered why Rosemary picked me out of the crowd. Why did she care for me as she did? It overwhelmed me! She gave me so many things, including a T-shirt, books to read, and a gift. She eventually helped me to get a job as an English teacher in the transit camp called Sungei Besi.
One Soccer Ball
One day before Rosemary left the island to spend a few days in Kuala Lumpur she asked me what I would like her to bring back for me. I told her that I didn’t really want anything, but that David would like to have a soccer ball. She brought us a beautiful soccer ball.
Sometimes things just don’t turn out as you’d like. Imagine, there was one soccer ball for fifteen thousand refugees. Every day we brought the ball to the beach and hundreds of people came to us wanting to borrow it. Eventually, we were watching others kicking the ball around, and having a good time, while we sat outside the field.
David became famous on the island. He was known as the boy with the soccer ball.
Witnessing Miracles of God
There were so many things that happened in the camp that I considered miracles of God.
● First, the boat that we were on was intended only to be used on the river. Its bottom, round, and shaped like a watermelon, allowed us to get out of the sand when we were hung up; but had we been confronted by waves–which we would have normally expected to see on that stretch of ocean–we would have been dumped into the sea. I noted this after our evacuation when the little boat was hit by the waves from the supply ship. Three big swells of water and the little vessel easily overturned.
● My friend’s sister, who was pregnant at the time, slipped on the rock, resulting in a premature delivery. The wee baby was no bigger than a can of Coke. The infant was fed with a plastic straw and was kept in a glass cube for some time. Finally, it was big enough to join her mom, bound for Australia. It was such an incredible thing to see her survive despite the conditions in which we lived. There was so little medication on the island, and only a tiny hospital with very few beds.
Finally the day came when we were accepted to go to Canada. This meant that it was time to say goodbye to my little brother. I’ll never forget seeing David standing on the Jetty Bridge with the soccer ball in his hand. I was heartbroken because I didn’t know if we’d ever see one another again.
My family was moved to a transit camp called Sungei Besi A. Rosemary continued to visit me, and she helped me get a job as an ESL teacher. She said if I couldn’t sit still in class then I might as well become the teacher. (Me? I was going to teach English?) Rosemary really believed in me.
I thought that if I was going to be the teacher I had to have some nice clothes. So I borrowed some.
Rosemary continued to visit me every now and then in the transit camp. She kept me updated on the welfare of my little brother David.
When I told Rosemary that we were leaving on the twenty-first of January she seemed very concerned and ran over to Kuala Lumpur and bought us four pair of shoes and a pair of boots for my mom.
Arriving in Montreal we understood why Rosemary had been so worried. It was the middle of winter in Canada! It turned out that we were the only family on the plane that had shoes.
A New Life
When we got settled in Edmonton I went back to school. Rosemary continued to write in order to keep in touch with me. She wrote many letters to encourage me to become something, and to seek a better life.
In one of her letters Rosemary mentioned her belief in God. She asked me to give my life to Jesus and to pick up my cross and to follow Him. I was scared, confused, and upset. It made me feel like our friendship had been a trap. I was mad at her, and I never replied to that letter. In fact, I never tried to contact Rosemary again.
I ran away from God. I thought that I could handle everything on my own.
When I finished school I got a job, bought a new car, and I lived on my own. I had everything I wanted. I thought that I was on top of the world. Then I became very depressed.
I went out and partied like other young adults but I always felt empty inside. I began to withdraw from everyone, including my own family. I felt lonely and very disappointed with the life that I had. It was one of the lowest points of my life.
I’ve learned, though, that God never gives up on me. He tapped me on the shoulder again.
I read in the bible, that when Adam was lonely, God created Eve for him. In like manner, God brought me a beautiful angel named Kris.
At the time I was avoiding church at all cost. I tried not to get involved with anything connected to a church group, or any activities connected to a church.
Then I met Kris. Her brother had brought her to a gym where we were playing volleyball.
I didn’t know that Kris was a Christian, and she didn’t mention it. She never invited me to her church in Chinatown. Each time we went out she just kindly asked me to wait for her until after the service was over.
Kris had a job in Vancouver and she asked me to visit her. During that time she brought me to a youth fellowship event one Friday evening. This happened to be a video night. The video that we watched was created by Tony Campolo and was about the Christian lifestyle.
I watched, and suddenly I had tears in my eyes–tears of laughter and tears of joy because I felt Tony was talking to me. He spoke about the things that I always avoided. He spoke about the things that I knew all along–that God loves me, that He had been protecting me all my life. I realized that I had been rejecting Him and trying to avoid Him, and yet He still loved me.
A Long Lost Brother Found
When we come back to Edmonton I asked God into my life and I asked Kris to be my wife. We both committed to Central Tabernacle, now North Pointe Community Church and our lives have been totally changed since then.
God blessed us with a house, and a year after we move into our home I got a phone call from Seattle. It was David, my little brother! He called from a Navy base, telling me that when he arrived in America he decided to join the Navy. He searched for my name in the Yellow Pages in Edmonton and he found my number.
God has answered my prayer concerning David in a magical way. I had no idea how to find him, but he knew how to look for me.
That was 1993. David said he just wanted to say thank you for looking after him on the island. He assured me, then, that he would be alright.
I was not able to keep in contact with David because he had no fixed address. God assured me, though, that David was on a good path and that he was safe in His hands.
Still, a few years ago, I wanted to know how David was doing so I placed his picture on the Internet to see if I could discover his whereabouts. His cousin from California sent me his email address and once again we found each other. I learned that David is living in Oklahoma, that he married, and that he and his wife have two children.
After I rejected Rosemary and her invitation to accept Christ, I lost contact with her as well. In time, though, I wondered what happened to her, and I asked God to help me to find her.
A prompt from Pastor Bob to write this story got me thinking about Rosemary, and to wondering if it would be possible to track her down. With God’s help, and with David’s assistance, I found Rosemary Lukens and learned that she is now married, and that she changed her last name to Traore. Rosemary now lives in Church, North Carolina. I can’t wait for a big reunion next year. It’s been over 30 years that we’ve been apart. I can’t thank God enough!
Grateful To God
God has blessed Kris and me with a home and two wonderful children. We have a church family and a place to worship Him. Kris and I are approaching our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I’m so blessed to have such a beautiful wife. We say thanks to God every day.
All that I am asking from you is that you trust in the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul. I hope my story will encourage you to really look into your life and help you to follow Him just like I did.
Thank you for reading. Sincerely yours,
APPLICATION: Please leave a comment for Thuy.
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