One Family’s Escape to Freedom and a Life in the UK

Reporter: Corrie Parsonson, Editor: Vin Ray

It was in May 1979 that a cargo ship, the SS Sibonga, went to the rescue of two sinking fishing vessels in the South China Sea. On board one of the stricken vessels were four brothers: Tan, Quan, Ben and Truong Truong. Also with them were their parents, Phuoc and May, three young cousins, Lee, Tung and Tony and an uncle. In all, the Sibonga rescued more than 900 people. All with individual lives, but who quickly acquired a generic name: the Vietnamese boat people.

The brothers and their family arrived in the UK in late 1979 and were put in the care of the Ockenden Venture. The family grew to eight when two more sons were born – in 1980 and 1984.

It is sometimes difficult to identify the effect of Ockenden’s work. So when the six brothers spoke movingly in London’s Union Chapel recently about their survival and subsequent adventure, it was a rare glimpse into the long-term benefits they have enjoyed.

The brothers Truong at the 'Together in the UK' event at the Union Chapel, London, February 5, 2020 (from L to R): Truong (41), Tim (35), Tan (47), Quan (45), Martin (39) and Ben (43). Photograph: Corrie Parsonson

The trauma of their rescue remains fresh in their minds. “One of my earliest memories,” Quan recalls, “was being slung onto my uncle’s back for what seemed an endless climb up the rope netting hanging down the side of the ship.”

“We’d been on the packed boat for three days and nights when the keel broke away and we began to sink.

“We couldn’t believe our luck when a commercial ship came into view and headed towards us. After taking our boat load on board our father told the Sibonga’s captain, Healey Martin, that there were two other crowded boats nearby. We found one and all were taken on board, even though there was no room. We didn’t find the third boat. Sadly no one knows what happened to it”.

The Truong brothers were speaking at “Making Migration Work” an event organised by Together in the UK (TGIUK), a not-for-profit organisation that’s “making a difference in migrant lives.” The mixed media event, was co-hosted by TGIUK’s Johann Taljaard and Teresa Norman and Rev Vaughan Jones, the Union Chapel’s minister.

Other speakers at the event on February 5, were the entrepreneurs Mr. Sam Seinthan (telcomms), who migrated alone to the UK from Sri Lanka as a 16-year-old to gain his A Levels, Dr. Moses Woldeselassie (AI, Blockchain and digital health services), who came from Eritrea, and Ana Freccia, a Brazilian who’s established a successful online property sharing service in southern England. Also present were the musician Anthony *aNt, a British east London artist of Nigerian heritage, the British poet Richard Roach, Nigerian singer-songwriter Ogo Ajala and the Zambia-born trainee lawyer Milambo Makani, who spoke inspiringly about his journey from teenage crime to an education and career aspirations in law.

The six Truong brothers spoke in descending order starting with Tan, a 47-year-old property manager from Kent who was five-and-a-half when his family fled North Vietnam’s capital Saigon (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) in 1979.

He said his family had been migrants before – from China. “We are Teochew people, a minority Chinese ethnic group, who had already migrated to Vietnam from China several years before. When the North Vietnamese swept south, they seized everything so, fearing persecution, our parents decided we had to leave.

“We had to evade many road blocks on the way to the coast, being fired upon at one, to reach the port and the fishing boat. My parents, younger brothers, my uncle and three cousins – the youngest, was shoved on board by our grandmother at the last minute.

“We could have died many times,” Tan told the audience. “The fishing boat’s capacity was 150. When we sailed, there were 500 people on board.”

Quan, a 45-year-old London architect, recalled their dramatic rescue, while Ben, a 43-year-old London-based operations manager in the health sector, explained the politics that brought the family to the UK and how they came to settle in Exeter, Devon.

“The Sibonga took us to Hong Kong. But the refugee camps there for Vietnamese boat people were overflowing so we were held on board for two weeks. Under pressure from the international community, the British parliament decided that the UK would accept the refugees on board the SS Sibonga.”

Ockenden Venture’s John and Ena Lesh, C 1983, with five of the Truong brothers as Ben Truong (brother No. 3) talks about the family’s experiences in the UK at the ‘Together in the UK’ event. Photograph: Corrie Parsonson

Once in the UK, the boat people were dispersed all over Britain. The Truong family was housed in Exeter. They were placed in the care of Ockenden Venture, one of two non-government organisations enlisted by Parliament to help settle more than 19,000 boat people in the UK between 1978 and the mid 1980s. Their Ockenden Venture carers – John and Ena Lesh, even fostered two of the cousins for several years. They also organised the reunion of another cousin with his family who had made a similar journey to the United States.

After five years of adventure in Devon, including holidays in Wales, the Truongs moved to a south east London council estate at Thamesmead in 1986.

Truong, a 41-year-old App Support Analyst, takes up their story: “We missed oriental culture and community, but we saw education as the best chance to better our situation. So we began a life of commuting four hours a day and several changes of bus routes to and from Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School in Kent where we were given a very English education, including rugby and cricket.

“We had no regrets about being in London,” he added.

Martin, a 39-year-old marketing director who also lives in London, is named in honour of the captain who saved the family. “It’s 40 years since Captain Martin picked us up and I will be turning 40 this year, so there’s special meaning in that, 40 years ago, Captain Healey Martin rescued us.”

Martin touched upon the cultural conflict second generation ‘boat people’ experienced when growing up in the UK: “I wasn’t old enough to know the hardship that accompanied my family’s story. So my own journey has been less about struggle and more about understanding my own identity.

“We are slowly reconnecting with our US cousins who have since moved back to Vietnam. Their accents are a sharp reminder of how different our paths were and how we are all slaves to destiny.”

Tim, a 35-year-old data strategist from London, rounded off the family’s presentations by saying: “There’s nothing wrong with being a refugee. It’s a simple statement but it has taken a long time to be able to say it confidently and without hesitation.

“Through storytelling we have the ability to humanise situations by giving accounts of real human journeys. For my nieces and nephews, telling this story will be key in helping to bring them up, allowing them to understand who we are and where we’re from.

“We’re extremely grateful. We know we’re very lucky and we don’t take that for granted. We realise that we simply wouldn’t be where we are today without the people who helped us – now, our benchmark of what true kindness looks and feels like.

“We are pleased to tell you about Captain Martin and John and Ena from the Ockenden Venture. Their actions were of pure human kindness, without a second thought of whether it would upturn their worlds. They were simply helping others in need.

“They weren’t trying to change the world, they did however change ours. They gave us the opportunity of new beginnings. Something we will be eternally grateful for.”