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When home is a strange country

Lynn Eaton on Vietnamese boat children who have been raised in a cultural vacuum.

A Save the Children Fund scheme which aims to introduce Vietnamese boat children, who have only known life in Hong Kong detention centres, to their home culture, is to end next month.

The charity has been holding Vietnam Days in the camps to teach the children about the country they will be forced to return to. For the youngsters it is their first chance to begin to understand life in the country their parents left up to six years ago in the hope of being resettled in the West.

Since 1988, when the Hong Kong government began to screen all newly arriving refugees, only a small proportion have been granted asylum.

Instead, most are deported or lured back to Vietnam with US$150 (Pounds 96) bribes from the Hong Kong government.

The camp, a two-hour drive from Hong Kong city, can be grim, especially in the rain. The 20-foot perimeter fence with barbed wire on top, the Nissen huts and the concrete yards are all grey. The only colours are the yellow mobile offices of the aid workers and the green plastic food buckets, which are used to transport food from the central kitchens.

Born in army-like barracks, the under-fives have little experience of anything other than the highly institutionalised, grey, grim detention centre.

There are no trees, no flowers, only some painted murals, which have already been damaged, on the grey concrete walls beside the camp's football pitch.

Workers from Save the Children Fund, which runs various health and education projects in the camp, have desperately tried to bring some colour into the children's lives by painting their nurseries bright blue inside. There are also some attempts to grow pot plants, but staff are fighting a losing battle. The rats like the greenery too much.

The nursery staff, all themselves refugees, abandon jeans and sweatshirts for Vietnamese Day and come to work in their traditional outfits instead. They teach the children about what their homes will be like, their new lifestyles, clothing, and about the country itself.

Mandy Craig, pre-school education coordinator with SCF, has an uphill battle to keep staff enthusiastic about their work against the background of forced repatriations. Staff morale is low as many reluctantly face return themselves.

But for the children it is less complicated. The nurseries and schools all now follow the Vietnamese curriculum, Mandy explains, to make it easier for the returning children. By using Vietnamese staff to run the centres, it helps maintain the children's culture as well. Children who return to Vietnam often find themselves up to two years behind their contemporaries at school.

Despite the attempts to teach about life in Vietnam, tragically some children will only learn by experience. One child recently died after falling down a well after returning to Vietnam. It was something he had never encountered before.

Although SCF has managed to persuade the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department, the prison officers who guard the camp, to allow the children outside on regular walks around the centre, they have never seen cars or bicycles and have no concept of how to deal with traffic. The children can only walk alongside a high pathway beside the dam outside, to a pagoda in the centre of the neighbouring reservoir.

It may be many years before the effects of being brought up in the camps are ever truly understood, according to the aid workers.

"I thought the children were drawing pictures of aliens not so long ago, " says Mandy. "It was only when a refugee teacher reminded me of a recent incident in the camp, when the security guards used tear gas on the refugees, that I realised what they were really drawing - security guards with gas masks on."

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