by Columban Sister Mary Anthony Ryan, Hong Kong
Late-night Phone calls
The phone rings in the late hours of the night and your heart stops; it can only be bad news. At least that is what happens to me. But of course this apprehension is unwarranted as few such calls convey worrying news. But still, when the phone rang that night some months ago, my anxiety level soared. Was someone sick? Had someone died? In fact it turned out to be a call that gave me great joy.
A Source of Joy
The young man phoning was visiting Hong Kong with his younger brother. They were on their way from Germany to Vietnam to visit relatives. I had last seen San about 26 years ago at Hong Kong airport. As a two-month old baby in the arms of his young mother, he was leaving Hong Kong with his parents and his two year old brother for Germany. In my remotest imaginings I had never thought we would meet again. Yet here he was on the phone, a voice from the past. I could hardly believe it.
Escape from Vietnam
The family had arrived in Hong Kong from Vietnam along with other families and unaccompanied little children. They had fled Vietnam in a small overcrowded boat which was in constant danger of being swamped by the waves of a notoriously rough sea. Luckily, after some days, they were rescued by a German ship and brought to safety in Hong Kong. They became another statistic along with the thousands of Vietnamese refugees already getting shelter here. Their relief at being on firm ground, safe at last, can only be guessed at.
The Legion to the Rescue
At the time my brother was teaching at the Columban Seminary in Australia. One day a Vietnamese student came to him and asked if he could help locate his brother and family who had fled Vietnam. The only information he had was the number of the boat in which they had made their get-away. I started with help of our Sisters. Sister Mary Greaney was already visiting Refugee Camps with members of the Legion of Mary. With the perseverance of the Legionaries who made unceasing enquiries, no stone was left unturned, no camp unvisited. Thanks to them, and with the co-operation of the authorities, we eventually discovered the camp in which the young family were living. An amazing coincidence was that around that time an issue of the Australian Far East had a photo of the seminarians studying in the Seminary at the time. And among them was the student from Vietnam, the one looking for his brother and family. Was the timing of that Far East photo a coincidence or was it the gentle care of a protecting Father?
Meetings with the Dang Family. With the precious photo in my hand I was ready to introduce myself to the family if and when we met at the Camp. On an October day I will never forget, Sr. Mary Greaney and I set off for what was to be the first of my many visits with the Dang family. With a variety of signs and gestures, and holding the precious Far East photo, we began to communicate. Fortunately, thanks to the Officer-in- charge, another Vietnamese man acted as interpreter for us.
Gradually their story unfolded. A story of courage in the face of danger, suffering, fear and death. A story of leaving loved ones and their own country and all the familiar things of home for the unknown in a desperate bid for life, freedom and safety. A story of a young mother heading out to sea in a flimsy boat three weeks before she was due to give birth to her second child. A story of deep strong faith.
A Refugee Camp in Hong Kong
Life in the Refugee Camps was not easy. The entire Camp had many buildings. Each building was home to numerous families giving each family a space equivalent to the size of a small double-bed. Families lived side by side in bunks with other families living on the upper bunks. It was unbearably crowded. Yet in that confined place I experienced the most gracious hospitality and welcome from the people forced to live there. The traumatised, exhausted Vietnamese settled in, grateful to be alive, to be together and to have their most basic needs met by Church and Government and groups of wonderful volunteers. In time Mrs. Dang gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby boy. Against all the odds this child, this new life, had survived death. What joy for all of us!
A New Life in Germany
Two months later a small group of volunteers, members of the German Embassy and some Columban Sisters, gathered at Hong Kong airport to say good bye to this little family and all who had risked life with them. They were to be resettled in Germany. And that was the last time I saw baby San.
Through the years the family kept in touch by letter. A Vietnamese Sister helped by writing and translating the letters for me. As the years passed five more children were born; I got photos of the Baptisms, First Holy Communions and Confirmation ceremonies. In time the children wrote on behalf of their parents.
A Joyful Reunion
And so to the late night phone call of a few months ago — through tears of joy, and on my part disbelief, we arranged to meet. What a reunion!
I don’t know who shed the most tears, but certainly there was not a dry eye among us. They had brought a large family photograph and I heard in detail about each one. The two brothers spoke of their wonderful parents and of their gratitude towards them. They greatly appreciated the courage of their mother and father and the sacrifices they had made so many years earlier so that the family might have life. Of course San was eager to know the details of the early part of his family history and I told him all about the Refugee Camp, the people there, the joy of his own birth. I told him of the unfailing courtesy and kindness of his parents even in such difficult, cramped circumstances. Overcome with emotion, he wanted to meet the Sisters who used to visit his parents at the time, he wanted to thank them. It was a profound experience for all of us. Our hearts overflowed as we prayed in joyful thanksgiving.
I still thank God for that late night phone call. He is truly the ‘God of Surprises.’
Sr Mary Anthony Ryan worked in Ireland for ten years and has spent the last 35 years in Hong Kong.