Shortly after moving to Laos in November and constantly being reminded of the aftermath of the Vietnam war, my heritage, and reading books about Vietnamese refugees, I was inspired to find the refugee camp from where I was born — or what’s left of it. I had a week off from work at the end of the year, which gave me about a month and a half to research where this camp might be, and who it houses now. What started out as a spark of curiosity and a holiday break, has led me onto a journey across physical distances, time periods, and relationships bound by the shared refugee experience.
— How did I find the exact location of the former refugee camp?
With supercomputers at our fingertips today, it might sound a bit strange saying that it was difficult to locate the exact location of this camp. 25 years ago, Google Maps, Facebook, and smartphones did not exist. Refugees did not have the privilege of knowing where they were outside the confines of their refugee camp, and histories of these barren places are hard to come by. When I first researched where this camp could’ve been a few years ago, the best advice I could get, after a few hours of digging around, was to go to a Vietnamese restaurant in the greater province, Nakhon Ratchasima, and ask the owners if they could help locate it. As adventurous as I was at that time, it didn’t seem like the best idea to pursue that in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the local language.
This time around, I was determined to make the trip, even if it meant asking random Vietnamese people in Thailand where I could find this camp. Luckily this time around, more refugee stories had been digitized, a Facebook community for former Sikiew refugees had been created, and people had even hosted a reunion in California (which I unfortunately did not know about at the time). After posting my intentions of visiting what’s left of Sikiew onto the Facebook group, I was connected a to a few former refugees, who connected me to even more former refugees. After a few iterations of getting introduced to former refugees, I had been connected to two notable people: Tai Do, who had done extensive research on the history of the camps, and Father Peter Prayoon Namwang, the man who, believe it or not, had baptized me 25 years ago.
Those two men ultimately helped me locate the exact location of the camp on Google Maps in addition to providing more background on this history of Sikiew, with the two most noteworthy facts being
- Sikiew Refugee Camp was a prison before it became a refugee camp.
- It’s still a prison now.
According to Tai Do and Father Prayoon, Sikiew Detention camp was built to detain Vietnamese civilians who immigrated into Thailand from before WWII and at a certain point, it started housing Vietnamese refugees who fled from the Vietnam War. Some arrived on foot, others by boat. Sikiew Refugee Camp was shut down from 1986 to 1990, when it reopened as a refugee camp for another 6 years. In 1996, the Sikiew the refugee camp was closed for good.
According to the prison’s website and an official I spoke to (via Google translate — go technology!) there, the facilities were rebuilt to serve as a women’s prison in 2001, and has continued to house prisoners to this day. The complex currently houses ~4,000 prisoners.
—An unexpected journey
Before I discovered the location of Sikiew Refugee Camp, I reached out to my uncle Luong who ventured through the Vietnamese & Thai jungles to Sikiew Refugee Camp with my dad decades ago. I was aware that neither of my parents knew exactly where the camp was, but uncle Luong might know. While he couldn’t provide the exact location of the camp, he gave me so much more. Through the limited photos he had of life in the camps and Vietnamese words of love, pain, and hope, I learned about a part of my and my family’s history I had tucked away for most of my life.
What I knew of my time in the refugee camps were from the fragments my mom and dad had shared with me. Even when I pressed for stories back in high school, the best I got of those 5 years were faded memories of life without a home, being shuffled around without control of your future, scarce resources that were rationed by the week, and nothing to do to fill up the days. The stories my parents shared were so fragmented and rare that I stopped asking altogether. Perhaps they too wanted to tuck this part of their life away.
Uncle Luong, however, was happy to hear that I was curious about my heritage and offered a wealth of memories. In talking to him, I gained a deeper understanding of my parents’ sacrifices, his sacrifices, the happy moments, sad moments, dull moments, and his love for his baby niece. After getting repatriated to Vietnam, uncle Luong never left the country so our relationship had been limited to the few visits I made back to Vietnam without any idea of how much he sacrificed to take care of me for my first year and a half in the camps. I can’t wait to see him the again the next time I visit Vietnam.
— Post-visit reflections
Prior to embarking on this journey, I used to think the fact that I was born in a refugee camp didn’t reflect much about me, as I did not actively do anything to get my family out of the camps. It’s like saying I was born in Fairfax County Hospital in Virginia. Merely the location of my birth over which I had no control. In fact, my mere existence caused more trouble for my family, as they had to take care of an infant in the deplorable conditions of the camp. However, the more I learned about my family’s journey, the more I learned about the weight that Sikiew Refugee Camp bore on me, despite only spending the first year of my life there. In a way, the fires of the refugee camp scorched me right from when I born, and I was left continuing to feel its burn throughout my life. Being born in a refugee camp meant that there was no guarantee my family would stay together before I even reached the age of 2. It meant that my future living in a country where my parents and I weren’t persecuted was not guaranteed. The trauma and addictions that marked my parents were perhaps to blame for why my parents are no longer together, or better yet, it was the reason why they were, in the first place.
This camp represented my family’s socioeconomic background; coming from the depths of Sikiew Refugee Camp represented the trajectory of my life. It meant that there would be insurmountable barriers to realizing my educational, personal, and professional aspirations. It meant not even getting the opportunity to shoot for the highest of aspirations because I wouldn’t even get exposed to it throughout my childhood. It means that the more I progress in my professional career, the fewer people who will be able to empathize with my family’s struggles of resettlement and poverty.
In a similar way that I inherit the scars my mom passed down to me as a single Vietnamese-refugee mother raising me up in a foreign country, the refugee camp gave me a few scars of my own. However, it also gave me the strength to live my one life to the fullest, the perspective that spans across socioeconomic status and eastern-western norms, as well as the drive to persevere through any situation. Every time I see the picture of my broken family holding me when I was a child, the reminder of my family’s sacrifices motivates me to continue fighting.
I know visiting area of the refugee camp from where I was born won’t give me a trip down memory lane nor would I recognize anything there, but perhaps deep down I hoped that the process of finding that camp will allow me to reconnect with this part of my heritage. Perhaps standing in front of the prison complex that now occupies the place where I was born 25 years ago will show me how far one can go in 25 years. Perhaps this time, it will light a fire that won’t burn me, but fuel my desire to make the most out of the opportunity I’ve been given.
Many thanks to Uncle Luong, Tai Do, and Father Peter Prayoon for sharing their research and experiences. Thank you to Mai Yer for accompanying me to Sikiew and taking the photos of me.