Then and Now: 40 Years on
In 1979, a British merchant ship rescued a hundred people from a sinking craft in the China Sea: refugees, escaping from their homeland after the fall of Saigon. The British government, in a hospitable mood at that time, set up a reception centre in the heart of England and called on local authorities to provide homes for “Vietnamese boat people.” I happened to meet a group of young refugees from the camp, and gave one of them contact details. “If some of your friends find themselves in Nottingham, tell them to ring me,” I said.
I was quite surprised when, a few days later, a young man telephoned to say that he and two friends were being offered accommodation in West Bridgford. The refugee camp confirmed this, explaining that they wanted to be sure that there were friendly people in every area where refugees were settled, as they would need quite a lot of help in the early days. I rang the housing department, who told me that Nottingham and three adjoining district councils were each offering two homes. These empty houses would need furnishing. My heart sank. We needed helpers in four districts now. I contacted the Council of Churches, and explained this to the secretary, Revd. Hamish Bailey, a URC minister, who I had never met. He came to see me and together we began a project, which later became The Nottingham Vietnamese Friendship Association. This was my first acquaintance with the URC. I had not been a church- goer for the last twenty years. My main complaint with churches had been that they seemed too remote from the problems of the world around them.
Furnishing the houses was done through a charity that collected unwanted furniture, but much more importantly the local churches provided a group of befrienders in each parish. Many refugees were young people who had been taught basic English in the reception centres, but needed help when it came to simple things like using local shops and supermarkets and handling cash. The education committee set up English classes to continue the training, with special provision for the young children. Fortunately, I was working in the Careers Service, so my colleagues and I could help to find suitable work, higher education or training for those above school leaving age.
The atmosphere was very welcoming in those days. Hien explained to me that he had three sisters, one was now in France, another in Canada, and the youngest had escaped over the border, and was in a refugee camp in Thailand. His parents were still in Saigon, but would dearly love to be re- united with their children. Kenneth Clarke, the local MP was happy to meet us. He was most friendly. Some weeks later, the youngest girl joined her brother in Nottingham and a year later, the mother and father also arrived. Hien, still a close friend of mine, brought his wife and second daughter to Exmouth last year. He is a chemical engineer and his daughters are both graduates now. They are a lovely family, now making a great contribution to the U.K.
Loving God, we pray for all those who are forced to leave their homelands, because of war or persecution, and pray that they can find a safe place in which to bring up their families. May there be lasting peace on earth – may your kingdom come. Amen.