When I saw that now famous image of little three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach after drowning in the Aegean Sea, it hit close to home.
Like the Kurdi family, mine fled a war by boat. And like Aylan, I was a toddler (just two years old) when my father, mother, one-month-old brother and I made the dangerous journey through the South China Sea. When I saw those images of Aylan, I thought about what my parents escaped in Vietnam. And more importantly I thought about the What Ifs and how that could have easily been me.
When people look at the news headlines about the Syrian refugee crisis, the problem can sometimes seem far removed. But these are people who are trying to strive for something better. Who doesn’t?
In my parents’ case, they wanted to create a safer and more secure life for my brother and I. After the Vietnam War and the Fall of Saigon, tensions were unbearably high between the Vietnamese and the Hoa, the ethnic Chinese population who owned many of the country’s businesses. My parents were ethnic Chinese, but we considered ourselves Vietnamese. My grandparents lived in Vietnam and owned a retail store there. It was our home.
After the war, the communist leaders were trying to oust all the people who were suspected of assisting the Americans. And there had always been division between the Chinese and Vietnamese. So the country began to go through a period of ethnic cleansing, in which the Vietnamese were trying to get rid of the Chinese. We were all told to just leave, and we were given 24 hours to do it. Those who stayed faced imprisonment, physical harassment or death.
My parents lived near the Chinese border so they decided to head to China. My mom had just given birth to my brother, but they decided to go over the mountains, which were dangerous and quite jungle-like, following the herd of people who were leaving Vietnam. We then took a boat to Hong Kong, with my parents paying fisherman the modern equivalent of £2,000 per person in bribe money to escape. They paid in gold. Whatever gold you had, you used to leave the country. There were a few hundred people on the fisherman boat that carried my family. Hardly the kind of thing you’d want to take out into the open sea. But my family was desperate. It took us a week to get to Hong Kong and that week was one filled with hunger, thirst and disease. There were pirates who would raid the boats and take everything. And stories of rape and children dying. I still get emotional at the thought of it. We were so fortunate to reach land unscathed.
The big issue was finding a country to take us. Malaysia was refusing to accept the boats arriving in its waters. That’s when the United Nations got involved, declaring at an international conference in Geneva that the problem was a global crisis. And then neighboring countries began to give the refugees temporary asylum.
We landed in Hong Kong and were called boat people. We had no identity. We stayed in a refugee camp there for six months while we waited for the government officials to place us elsewhere. The camps were overcrowded, but my parents were just relieved to be off the boat. They were relieved to be alive. We then moved to a camp in the UK on Weymouth's Thorney Island, where we stayed for six months, before eventually moving to temporary housing in Yeovil and later Somerset. The government eventually placed us in council housing in Hackney when I was eight years old.
Many believe that refugees come into the country and just take. But this is not true. My family worked, hard. My mother worked as a seamstress in a factory. My father worked as chef in a Chinese restuarant. We contributed to the economy, and still do. I have a thriving career as a photo editor at The Guardian.
I’m now pregnant with a baby girl. And when I look at the image of Aylan, and think back to my own experiences, what I hope most for her is a world where we can show kindness and compassion to those most in need of it. And that she never forgets our past and our journey.
We were so lucky. We’re still in touch with those Red Cross volunteers and ordinary people (pictured above) who first helped us when we arrived in the UK, gathering clothes and food for us and helping us to complete official paper work. We’re still eternally grateful. And the image of Aylan, while heartbreaking, only deepens my gratitude.
The Syrian refugee crisis is on a different, frankly astonishing scale. This year alone, more than 380,000 migrants and refugees have landed on European shores. More than 3 million Syrians in total have fled the country’s civil war, travelling to North Africa, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond. It’s a humanitarian crisis we didn’t recognise until now. But this very real sense of human loss can be corrected. I’m living proof.
Here's a list of ways to help.