A “wake-up call” is what the newscaster said this morning in reference to the horrendous fate suffered by 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in a refrigerated container on 23 October in Purfleet, Essex, England. Purfleet is a two-hour drive from my home, or a 97-mile ride. Perhaps it is this very proximity that makes the news more disturbing to me. This happened in England. Unlike the horrors in Syria, which seem a world away, Purfleet is just the other side of London, in “the neighbourhood,” so to speak.
The face of one 26-year-old victim pictured on the cover of The Times haunts me. She is beautiful, radiant even. Her name is Pham Thi Tra My. The delicate lace trim of her blouse catches my attention, clearly from another place—not European. The small yellow and white Plumeria flower tucked behind one ear and the graceful placement of her left hand at her neck speak of innocence. I know that flower, its paradisal scent. I recall the blossom from Hawaii, Spain, other tropical and subtropical climates. The building behind her suggests an oriental setting. Why would she leave?
There is also an image purportedly taken in Belgium on a relatively bright day, presenting a fellow victim believed to have been just 19 years old. She, too, radiates energy and life. Her name is Bui Thi Nhung, the youngest known member of the group. Did she have time to text home as Pham Thi Tra My did: “I’m sorry, Mum, my path to abroad did not succeed. I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.”
I feel helpless in the face of such evil. I don’t know all the details—who paid who how much and for what. I do know there is currently a manhunt in progress for the people smugglers responsible and one man has been remanded in custody, charged with manslaughter and human trafficking offenses, while several other people have been arrested. A terrible accident or a premeditated act? The details will leak out one by one, I am certain, as with all such heart-breaking incidents. The criminals will pay, but we all know that whatever the verdict or sentence passed, it will not restore the victims to life. Will it even stop the flow of hopeful migrants, desperate people looking for a new chance, a better existence—believing themselves willing to pay any price?
Pham Thi Tra My is not my child, but it feels somehow as if she is. A young woman with most of her life still ahead of her, did she risk it all for the sake of her family? The loss to them is incalculable. How many have taken such a journey before her and survived, and how many who have risked their life in this way have not? The shadowy world of illegal immigration is outside my experience. I cannot from where I sit solve this problem. I cannot bring about a return to life or even justice for the innocent victims. I am merely a powerless bystander… or am I?
I ask myself again why a young woman, or any person, would hazard all to travel in such dangerous circumstances? I read the reports, and I try to understand this one person and the forces in her life that culminated in a gamble that failed outright. What does England represent to people like her? Life? Liberty? Democracy? A chance to work; to make a living? To help their family back in Vietnam? I look at the everyday framework of my own life—security, freedom, legal rights. I look again at those who stake all to travel to and work in England.
I feel that in the face of their ordeal, I should take time to reflect on these people and their experiences. I should also remain aware of the advantages I have had from birth, being mindful of and grateful for them. I cannot change the world, but maybe I can increase the amplitude of my own gratitude in one small corner of it. I can pray. I can grant towards all those who cross my path the dignity and respect that everyone deserves. Life can sometimes seem mundane; rights and liberties be easily forgotten. I may not know the specific troubles suffered by someone half a world away, but I can in some small, disciplined way face down immorality and evil by pushing back to promote the larger, stronger forces for good: freedom, dignity and happiness. I can maintain a flame of remembrance for Pham Thi Tra My, who had hope. I can be humbled when faced by an aged man who, almost lost for words on the Sunday following the tragedy, was still able to sputter, “Evil. Never stop. Fight it.”
I think of Bill Gates, the taskmaster of our times, who remains undaunted by the biggest global problems: polio, sanitation, clean energy. He fights, he carries on, he makes people’s lives better. In our own individual small way, maybe we should aim to do the same.
Wishing for freedom, dignity, happiness – and a solution,
On sale, paperback released 28th September