I began doing unpaid voluntary work in my early teens.
I didn’t analyse why I started doing this. Perhaps it was altruism, pathological ‘caretaking’ behaviour or simply curiosity. Whatever the reasons, I enjoyed it and was strangely good at it.
I eventually qualified that perhaps I was giving back to a society that had supported me through very bad times, but that was a relatively recent reasoning.
I visited the elderly, assisted teaching disabled people to ride horses, taught rehabilitating drug addicts yoga and helped set up fundraising stalls.
Years ago when I was living in Hong Kong, a friend of a friend asked me to give a perk up and make up session to a very young Vietnamese girl who was in hospital and had lost her hair due to cancer treatments.
After spending several hours with the young woman in what proved to be a lovely, albeit very sad visit I was asked to help out in the Vietnamese closed refugee camp at Cape Collinson.
The camp was in the midst of a still active correctional facility. In the prison grounds was a building surrounded by a moat and barbed wire, and this was where the refugees were placed.
Most of the later waves of refugees tended to be ill educated (and thus unwanted by possibly rehousing countries) and were fisherman, farmers or manual labourers. On arrival they would initially be inclined to be fit, and as the concrete surrounding the building wasn’t enough enough to accommodate even a basket ball game, a lot of physical tension built up amongst the residents. This tension was probably exacerbated by being able to look out of their wire enclosed island and see convicted criminals wandering around the grounds in the surrounding prison.
The camp was clean but stark. Everyone, including the families, had a bunking area that was wide enough to include bedding and a few possessions, though most had lost near everything on their journey from Vietnam.
On my first day at the facility I was to help distribute toys that had been donated to the children. Every resident under eight was to receive a plastic dinosaur if they were a boy, and doll if they were a girl.
Bearing in mind that these people had nothing and were bored and frustrated and combine that with it being difficult to ascertain the age of Asian children, the consequent riot shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
Surrounded by hysteria and parents thrusting children at us in the fear of missing out, myself and the other staff ended up barricaded in the office until the security guards broke up the crowds.
I used to just hang out on occasion and talk to people. I’d listen to horror stories about the boat journey from Vietnam, and dreams of wonderful rose tinted countries that would hopefully become a future home for the refugees.
I’m not a qualified English teacher, but simply enough my role was to help these people fill in basic paperwork, all the more difficult as it wasn’t unusual for my pupils to be illiterate in their own language.
The classes were often interrupted by the security forces. On one occasion it was to remove several of my pupils who had suspected Cholera, but more often it was to take away people who had broken rules in some way and needed to be put in ‘the dog house’.
I made enquiries into this and it seems that this camp had been used to house civilian prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation and outside the moat was a small concrete dug out that had been used as a punishment cell. This was still in use, and was referred to by the Vietnamese internees, as ‘the dog house’.
I volunteered here for a while, but gradually life overload and other commitments meant I needed to step back from the work.
Some time later I watched on the news the beginning of the forced repatriation of third time Vietnamese Refugee returnees, and cried.