Kota Kinabalu: A Vietnamese boat refugee who landed with his family here in 1982 capped his return visit here last week with what he described as his best Christmas gift – tracking down the girl and her brother who gave them hope in their hour of darkness then.
His visit here was a shot in the dark as he wasn’t sure that he would meet up with them since he had lost contact over the years.
Indeed, he left for Penang after a few days here without success and took the next flight back to KK when told that Daily Express through this writer had managed to track down the two that he had come all the way for – all within 10 days.
Now a doctor in Melbourne, Australia, Trung Pham, his wife, Tramy and their three children, Katherine (22), Teresa (19) and Matt (17) visited Sabah for the first time on Dec.17, with Trung hoping to meet the two important people who his family owed their lives to.
Hence, the first thing that Dr Trung did upon checking into the Le Meridien on Dec. 17 was to contact the MRCS office, hoping to get some leads into finding a certain “Rozeline”.
He met up with the officer, Elizabeth Sikayun, who took him to see the old building in Sembulan where the batch of Boat People that included Dr Trung and his family were housed in 1982.
“I could still identify the place. It was overwhelming when I passed by the place. Such an important memory happened there where we were kept,” said Dr Trung.
He recalled vividly the time spent inside the building, especially one young volunteer named Rozeline, who spent a lot of time with them and talked to his mother often to uplift their spirits.
Still, by Dec. 21, there was no clue as to who Rozeline was or where she might be, if at all. Or even if she was alive.
In desperation Elizabeth toyed with the idea of reaching out to Rozeline, by making it known through the Daily Express.
Dr Trung recalled that besides Rozeline, there was also a man who was always making sure they took their meals and so on.
“I don’t know his name but he looked like someone with authority in the Red Crescent and he smoked.
I also remember him wearing pointed shoes most of the time.
“Sometimes he would bring his family, his wife with a child and two older people to interact with us and I guess they were his parents. We couldn’t speak English, so we shied away except my mother,” Dr Trung said.
Asked why it was so important for him to find “Rozeline” when there were others, too, helping them out at that time, he said: “Rozeline became attached to my mother as she constantly showed her concern for her (mother) and the others.”
Trung’s mum, Nguyen Thi An, was a midwife in Vietnam and the only one who could communicate in English at the centre.
“I guess that was how she became so attached with Rozeline despite it being just a week’s stay.
The bonding was so great,” he said.
Trung said although at that time (MRCS centre) he could not speak a word of English he saw and felt how his mother was being cared for by Rozeline. That if it wasn’t for Rozeline, they would have lost the spirit to live on.
He also saw the “other man” who made sure they had something to eat and given proper care such as blankets, clothing, etc.
“That other man was usually always around in the morning and afternoon. In the evening he would bring his family members and try to interact with some of us. Although he didn’t seem to talk much, he was caring and made sure we had food to eat and sleep.
But it was Rozeline that occupied his mind, at times shivering and pausing when her name was mentioned.
“I must find my angel, Rozeline. Be it tomorrow, next month, next year, 10 years later, I must find her,” he cried.
Asked what he would do if he managed to find Rozeline, he said: “I just want to hold her hands, and say thank you, thank you, thank you,” his eyes welling up with tears.
Having no luck in his search, Trung and his family flew to Penang on Dec. 22, their next holiday destination as planned.
However, he reminded this writer to contact him should there be any good news as he would be in Penang until Dec. 29 before flying back to Melbourne.
In the meantime, this writer made enquiries on who might have been involved with MRCS in 1982 and especially a “Rozeline” via calls, WhatsApp and Facebook. There were some leads but they did not match he description Trung gave.
Elizabeth, on her part, consulted the Sabah Archives but without success. On Christmas day, this writer attended a Christmas dinner of a close friend Juliana Yong and Chris Chong in Penampang.
One of the guests happened to be Wembley Mogindol, a former MRCS staff, who this writer had made enquiries earlier.
However, earlier she was not able to tell him the whole story as it was still developing.
When she described the whole story about Trung and the two people he was looking for, Wembley immediately knew Trung was describing him (Wembley) and his sister, Rozeline! Wembley also started recalling what happened during the Boat People incident in 1982.
“Yes, I was very much involved with the Vietnamese Boat People then. But I could not remember any names or even their faces. The centre at Sembulan was used to house the refugees as a temporary transit place before they were transferred to KL for interview and further arrangement of their resettlement in another adoptive countries,” Wembley said.
He then revealed that Rozeline, his sister, was not a MRCS member but came on her own to give assistance.
“That was how Rozeline got involved with the Vietnamese Boat People. The rest was history,” he laughed.
When this writer broke the good news to Trung (in Penang) on the night of Christmas, he was overwhelmed and could not believe that his “Rozeline” hed finally been found and fitted well with the description given by him earlier.
Arrangements were immediately made for Trung, Rozeline and Wembley to meet up. Elizabeth also conveyed the good news to her MRCS Chairman. Datuk William Chai, the Chairman then (in 1982) was happy the matter was solved, saying MRCS had contributed immensely in humanitarian activities including the Boat People incidents.
On Dec. 27, Trung flew to KK from Penang to see his “Rozeline”. In one of his messages to this writer, he wrote “I am coming back to see my angel!”
Trung also informed his mother in Melbourne about the good news. She was equally thrilled and could not wait to see photos of the reunion.
Rozeline echoed the line Lionel Richie made famous in his song “Hello” by asking “Was it me you have been looking for?” when meeting Trung for the first time at the reunion.
An emotional Trung immediately held her hands and hugged her, lost for words.
Rozeline shared that whenever she met Vietnamese tourists, she would ask if they knew Nguyen (Trung’s mother) “I had been asking people about Nguyen and no one seemed to know. So I gave up many years ago.
But deep in my heart, I was still wondering how she was, where she was, what had happened to her and so on.
“I guess I can stop wondering now. Everything is solved in this reunion,” she said, as she and Trung caught up with the lost time.
Wembley also could not hold back tears at the reunion.
“I am speechless knowing Trung remembered what happened and what we did. It is such an amazing discovery after 34 years. I am glad what we did was remembered by someone. This is such a touching moment,” he said.
Rozeline said no words could describe how important the reunion was for them. She said never in her wildest dream did she think that someone whom she had helped decades back would take the trouble to return and say “thank you”.
“When I help, I do it with a genuine heart and no intention of asking for anything in return. Therefore, I never imagined Trung would come back to my life to look for me just to say ‘thank you’. I am so touched and moved by his effort to look for me and my brother,” she said.
She remembered how she always brought food and distributed them (at the centre). She also gave away her clothings and other useful items for the family.
“I used to catch up with Trung’s mother, in the evening at the centre. We sat at the corner of the place and drank coffee together. There was this young boy who was always standing near her all the time.
“But honestly, what I did then was a little which I still do till today. But to be remembered for it is overwhelming.
I cannot also remember those I helped.
“Now I know I have another family out there who cares for me,” she said.
Trung said one journalist in Melbourne knew about his story and approached him while he did his internship in one of the hospitals.
“But at that time, I was not ready to reveal everything to anyone yet. I felt this story is only meant for me and not to be shared with anyone else. Not until I had completed the jigsaw (missing piece). Today, Rozeline completed the puzzle and I am ready to share my story,” he said.
Trung said that every human is the same. Each has a story. Each suffered in their own way. Each needs to be comforted by one another.
“What Rozeline did to us may look simple and nothing to some. But she had given us many things to be treasured.
“Her kindness to us at that time was immeasurable. When she gave us food, I saw generosity in her.
When she talked to my mother, I saw selflessness in her. When she touched some of us with her hands, I saw compassion in her. When I saw her giving water to a young boy, I saw empathy in her.
“Can you buy that feeling with money?”
Holding Rozeline’s hand tight, Trunbg said he would forever remember how much he owed to this “angel” who represented the best of humanity in his life.
“But I also told my wife and children that Lorena (this writer) was the main detective,” he quipped.