5 days without food - selfless rescue at sea gives this 'Refugee' a purpose

5 days without food - selfless rescue at sea gives this 'Refugee' a purpose

She came as a refugee to Singapore when she was barely 4 years old. Today, 37 years later, Ms Yen is shaping young minds and teaching her children the way to help the community

Someone once said that the person we grow up to be is based on the experiences we have had when we were young. The events that transpire in our formative years often shape the way we think and act as adults. So when we come across someone like Ms Yen Siow, the founder of Discovering Without Borders – a social educational enterprise start-up, one cannot help but wonder what her formative years were like.

Ms Yen believes in giving back to the community. That is why we see her busy with numerous social causes, be it helping single mothers find casual employment, or working with shelters for children and troubled teens. Her brainchild, Discovering Without Borders, enables and empowers children to explore the STEM subjects – Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics through interactive workshops.

We had a talk with her about her early years, the experiences that shaped her personality, and why she does what she does.

Ms Yen came to Singapore as a refugee when she was barely 4 years old. Her father escaped Vietnam along with his family in the midst of a political turmoil. The story of their escape and subsequent rescue is nothing short of a spine-chiller.

Here is an excerpt of the conversation we had with her.

Why did your family decide to escape Vietnam?

I was born in 1976, a year after the Vietnam War had ended. A new government regime had taken over and there were challenges with making the people adopt a new ideology. There were cases of brothers, uncles, fathers and grandfathers being sent to re-education camps and not returning. Many people feared for their lives. I believe this fear led my father to make the decision to leave Vietnam in 1980 even though it had been his home for many generations past.

My father’s decision to leave Vietnam was a response to his faith – a belief he had that there had to be a better future, a better country and a new way of living that would offer peace and prosperity for his family. He took that chance knowing that the odds were against him and that he would risk everyone’s life out at sea.


Can you tell us about the escape?

My father left Vietnam along with 12 other family members on board a small fishing boat meant for 10 people – but in desperation 82 people were squeezed on board.

On Oct 15, 1980, in the early morning, my father along with 81 other people left the shores of Vietnam. We sailed out into the South China Sea with just the clothes on our backs and some sacks of rice. The boat was not meant for deep sea sailing and the motor kept on stalling due to the weight of the people.

There was a moment on the boat when the adults decided to cook rice with sea water as they had run out of fresh water. It turned out to be inedible due to the high levels of salt. We drifted for 5 days at sea. Other boats and ships passed us, but none would stop to help us.

I remember sitting on my mother’s shoulders when the water reached her chest. Most of the adults thought that we were going to capsize. We were desperate for any help and would try and signal with fire or smoke or with just the sounds of our voices – but the other ships and boats ignored our pleas.


Five days passed, and we saw the Berge Tasta – a Norwegian Oil Tanker which came close to our boat and then sailed on past us. We lost all our hope. Just then, the Berge Tasta turned back and came for us. The captain and crew helped us all on board and welcomed us with clothing, water and food. I remember clinging to my uncle’s back as he climbed the rope ladder. I felt so weak and exhausted that I felt I would fall. Luckily, everybody boarded the rescue ship safely.

We had been given a second chance at life and it was the most joyous moment for everyone on board. We arrived as refugees in Singapore and then, 4 months later by another miracle, my family was resettled in Australia.

Read on to know how these incidents shaped her life

Growing up, did these memories and/or your experience affect you in any way?

Growing up I had always felt that there was a void in my life. The first 5 years of my childhood was not spoken about. The war and the escape from Vietnam were never mentioned. My parents were very busy trying to work more than one jobs on farms and in factories just to survive as new refugees in Australia.

The trauma from the war had numbed their feelings and silenced their words. Growing up, we knew that we were out of place and different from the locals. I believed these feelings gave me a sense of being lost. I did not know where I belonged, who I was. I did not know where my roots were. In my eyes, I was neither Australian nor Vietnamese.

Ms Yen at the Singapore refugee camp

Ms Yen at the Singapore refugee camp

During my university years, I decided to go on a soul search to find out who I was. I found a higher purpose in life when a friend introduced me to spirituality. I began to understand that my life had a meaning and that I was born for a reason. My Christian faith has been the inspiration for my search to find the missing pieces to my childhood.

I love and appreciate my life and have a spirit of thankfulness that I am alive. I am glad that I had been given a second chance to live. This has created an awareness that there were people before me who made it possible for my family to have the opportunities that we have today.

What are the lessons you have taught your children based on your own childhood experiences

I have taught my children 4 important lessons:

1# Each day is a gift

Every day of life that we have, every breath we have is a precious gift that God has given us. We should not take our life for granted but know that we were created for a purpose. Finding that purpose through God makes all the difference to having a meaningful life.

2# Perseverance

I have taught my children that all things are possible when you have faith. I have challenged my children many times to stay put and not to give up because it is the hard work and sweat that will make us stronger.


3# Vision for the family

Having a vision for our family builds unity and solidarity. When we work hard, take risks that are combined with a clear vision for our families, we can triumph in the midst of persecution because the human spirit is strong and there is a clear goal to work towards.

4# Kindness and Compassion are important action-words

I remind my children the value of human kindness and how the captain of the Ship, Berge Tasta, had shown compassion towards the strangers by welcoming them on board and giving them safe refuge and dignity. These acts of kindness have made a deep impact on our family for many generations to come.

 In your opinion, how can we teach our children to be more aware of what’s happening both in their community and in the rest of the world? 

We can do so by walking the talk.

Homelessness is one of the most neglected conditions in the world. My children and I frequent two shelters – one for unsupported pregnancies and another for abused teenage girls. We talk to those who seek help. In the process, we ensure that we are building authentic friendships with them because we genuinely care for their future . We have all faced hard times and it is in the support and love for each other that brings comfort and hope for a better tomorrow.

Read on to know her thoughts on how to address the concerns of present-day

What are the ways in which we can draw more attention to the plight of refugees around the world, specifically children? 

 We can just start by looking at the displaced women and children living in home shelters and crisis centres in Singapore. There are about 1000 children living in shelters at the moment and that number is growing. There are many women escaping domestic violence and many single mothers who are unsupported.

We can just start in our neighbourhoods by contacting these centres and asking if we can volunteer. It just starts with a little concern and compassion and then doing your own research to see which organisation fits in with your family’s vision to serve and give back.


The plight of refugees could be portrayed more realistically when you read articles and watch Youtube videos of what is happening in the world today ( don’t forget to screen these videos before showing it to your children). You can email the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or even World Vision International (which is HQ in Singapore) to see if you can talk to the staff there.

There are 21.3 million refugees today (the highest number since WW2) and they are in the most precarious, dangerous situations fleeing their unstable countries. We can do something by just being respectful and mindful of their situation. We can partner with organisations to foster awareness and even share our resources to help them through simple acts like donating our clothes or sponsoring a child in need.

What is your message to our readers and their children?

My main message to your readers and their children is that we do not know the extent of a person’s suffering until we take some time to connect with their humanity and suffering.

Compassion takes a step of faith to be able to put your heart on the line for another person – by sharing your time, resources and skills.

Time stood still for my family 36 years ago when we were adrift the South China Sea with only hopelessness and possible death in sight. It was only on the 5th day at the “11th” hour that rescuers from Norway picked us up and gave us a second chance at life.

Ms Yeo met her rescuer, Bernhard Oyangen after 36 years!

Ms Yeo met her rescuer, Bernhard Oyangen after 36 years!

#storyofgratitude I gave a gift to my rescuer Mr Bernhard to remind him of the time his captain and supportive crew made the courageous decision to help a 3-year-old little girl who would one day come back and say, “Thank you. You saved my life.”

Mums, don’t you feel inspired to spread goodwill by inculcating empathy in your children? Do let us know in the comments below.

Also read: Man’s act of kindness for pregnant mum on plane is inspiring

(Images courtesy: Ms Yen Siow)

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Written by

Anay Bhalerao

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