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Eleanor Grogg Stewart

My book is called NOT ONLY A REFUGEE. It is about the time I spent as a UN volunteer at the Vietnamese Refugee Center on Palawan Island in the Philippines in 1982 and 1983. (See more on Amazon.com and my blog called notonlyarefugee@blogspot.com.)

I was a community college teacher of public speaking in Denver, Colorado, when I first met Vietnamese people. I tutored students as well as teaching classes, and the Vietnamese refugees were sent to my table by their adviser. They were studying electronics at the college and they needed help with English. I asked them to show me the books from which they had studied, and I saw that these books taught vocabulary and grammar, but not speaking. As we worked together and became friends, I began to learn their stories, and I felt great admiration for them because they had gone through danger and difficulties to get here, but they didn't complain. They talked about Viet Nam, about their boat trips--everything but the refugee camps. I realized that was where they could learn to speak English correctly because they stayed there quite awhile if only they had a native speaker to work with them.

I applied to the UN to go to a refugee camp to teach English. It took almost a year, and I was lucky to be sent to the VRC in the Philippines because, as you will see in my book, it was a humane, well run camp. It is the only place I worked.

After returning to the U.S., I felt compelled to write about my year and four months there, and I spent another year and four months to write NOT ONLY A REFUGEE. I had records, notes and pictures and my memory was very clear. Then I tried to get it published commercially for another year and five months, but could not crack the publishing market. I went back to teaching again. (I have a Master's Degree in speech and theater from the University of Illinois.) I took the ms. to Japan where I taught English for over a year, and I almost got it published by Tuttle while I was there, but the marketing department in the U.S. rejected it. So, I put it away for several years, although I continued to edit and prooofread it.

Also, in 1989, I made a return visit to Palawan and visited what had become Viet Ville. Only the people who had not been able to be resettled lived there. The Filipino government did not expel them, but allowed them to live and work in Puerto Princesa where the camp was located.

The only other camp I know anything about were two in HK. I wanted to teach in a refugee camp again, and I was told by my friend who was a social worker at Whitehead in HK that there might be a teaching job available. This was in 1990. She couldn't have been more wrong. The plan was to return people to Viet Nam, and they were not to be encouraged to think they could resettle in the U.S. or anywhere else. I was given an escorted tour with a few other people where I saw their living conditions and was terribly shocked.

I stayed with my friend who worked there, and she told me more about it. I learned there was another, smaller camp on an island near the city, reachable only by ferry. I managed to get a chance to go inside and permission to teach only the translators on the weekend as a volunteer. This was through an NGO. I was only able to stay for only a few weeks because I was running out of money and had to activate my return ticket.

However, during those few visits, I learned how hopeless their situation was, as almost no one was being considered as a refugee any longer. As in Whitehead, they weren't allowed to cook or to go outside the camp. A second fence was being installed outside the first one to prevent escapes.

That's where I filmed the rolls of barbed wire. The translators were happy to have something to do on the weekend and they all came to the class. I used a love story I had written about a couple in the VRC in Palawan called "My Wife" as material for the class, and they were surprised to learn that there was a refugee camp where people could go outside and shop and stay out till 10:00 p.m. and cook their own food and have a Buddhist temple and a Catholic church and a Boy Scout troop and many, many Western volunteers who came to bring educational and medical services to them.

I never saw any other camps. This is longer than I intended, but you may excerpt it for your web page, Anna.

Dear Anna,

Bataan camp had an impressive UN office that may still be there. UN people who visited did not usually see the real camp. As you know, Vietnamese and Cambodians were enemies and did not get along with each other in the camp. They stayed in different areas. It held as many as 30,000 people. I wonder if the temple is still there, as the Philippines is Catholic. It had an English monk who felt close to the Vietnamese, but not to the Cambodians. He caused trouble between them over a statue of the Buddha. I did not put this story in my book, as I decided that it should be about Palawan.

However, I did write one chapter in which I found out about the death of a well-known Vietnamese man from the VRC on Tet in l983. Refugees were not supposed to drink alcohol, but it was bootlegged into the camp by Filipinios. He was caught drinking on Tet and was taken to the small jail where he was kicked by a Filipino soldier. He had previously been wounded in the stomach and so he died before he could get medical help. When I was there the first time, the Vietnamese people were very scared because of that. They showed me his dan trans hanging on a wall. I had heard him play it in Palawan. There was a strict curfew (unlike the VRC, where the curfew was not strictly enforced). My friends from the VRC accompanied me everywhere in the camp to protect me, as they feared the Cambodians. They were very careful to get back to their dormitories before curfew. I talked to the UN Field Officer about this sad event, and he said the bad soldier had been removed; however, he had not informed the people about that, so I told them.

They weren't well fed; holes in the floor for toilets were used by many more people than the UN knew; the electricity and water supply went on and off according to whatever the Filipinos wanted. Although it was a UN camp, there were no volunteers like us in Palawan, and the young Field Officer didn't want to leave his office and his house to go into the camp, which he had been told was dangerous. It was not dangerous for me because I had Vietnamese friends who took a chance to take me into their quarters and stay with me for a few days while I was there.

I took a chance to report the problems to a UN official visiting from Geneva in front of the Filipino military officers and was later arrested in the Vietnamese barracks and taken to the jail. I was well treated there, given cookies and tea in the outer office. A Vietnamese man from Palawan saw me at the jail and went to the UNHCR office for help. They sent a car for me and took me to the UN office, where I gave a full report of the abuses in the camp. For example, guards wore rifles, which they were not supposed to do according to UN policy. I then met with the U.S. Embassy man (an alcoholic who started drinking at 10:a.m.) , and I had to leave the camp the next day and just barely got a chance to say goodbye to my friends. One of them discovered where I was staying overnight and brought me a small goodbye gift and took my message to the rest that I was OK.

I am not speaking against Filipinos in general. Military power often brings out the worst in people.

I'll be interested in how much the military tells you and lets you see in Bataan. If you dare, ask about the graveyard

I looked at every photo of the PRPC--now a Filipino Economic Zone--whatever that is.

I remember some things--such as the Buddhist temple. It was not only for Vietnamese when I was there--but for Cambodians and Laotians also. I heard about some trouble between Vietnamese and Cambodian Buddhists brought on by the English monk who favored the Vietnamese art work and was caught burying a Cambodian Buddha statue at night in order to get rid of it. He was physically attacked, but was able to defend himself. When I walked with Vietnamese friends through the Cambodian area, they were worried about trouble. Nothing happened, but at a spot where we stopped for awhile, they found Vietnamese Buddhist prayer books partially burned and thrown away. I saw them. The building is nice looking, but cannot tell the story of its history. I did not include this in my book, which is about my firsthand experience at the VRC.

I was moved by your pictures of the cemetery. There is only grass--no record of anyone who died there. So my book, NOT ONLY A REFUGEE, may be the only record left of what happened to Tu Qui, the danh tran player from the VRC who died there as a result of being kicked by Filipino guards on Tet.

They have renovated and are using the official buildings from the camp, but you can see the remains of the Vietnamese barracks which were sweltering, without proper toilet facilities, overrun with rats and had only intermittent electricity. Raw sewage drained outside them.

No doubt there are people who would like to deny all this, but I wrote my book in 1984-85 and included photos that show how bad it looked.

Eleanor Grogg Stewart

You can buy her book at Amazon.com
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