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The long journey home

Daughter of Cambodian refugees seeks father’s grave in Philippines

It was in early July this year that Lina and I heard from Gaylord, a friend now living in Virginia who we knew from our time in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center. Gaylord worked for many years with Southeast Asian refugees, not only in the refugee center but in the first asylum camp in Galang, Indonesia. He left the refugee center in 1988, but not before becoming one of my family’s dearest friends.

Gaylord has posted many photos of the refugee center on the web. A young Khmer, or Cambodian, woman looking for someone who knew the camp found him on the web and contacted him in June; Belinda had an urgent request.

Her family fled Cambodia in the summer of 1986. They arrive in the Philippines not long after. Her father died on Nov. 24, 1986, while still in transit at the refugee center, leaving her mother and two brothers. Belinda was just conceived. He was buried in a small cemetery at the camp. The family continued on to Long Beach, Calif., in December, and Belinda was born on June 15, 1987.

She writes: “Growing up, my mother seldom spoke of my father. But when she would, all she would say to my brothers and I was, ‘You are exactly like your father — quick and smart’ or ‘You have long and beautiful fingers and toes — just like your father’s. She rarely spoke of details surrounding his death or her time at the camp in the Philippines.”

Belinda continues, “When I was around 8 or 9, I remember overhearing one of those conversations between my mom and one of her adult girl friends. My mother told her friend, ‘I wouldn’t even know how to go back to the Philippines and find that cemetery — it’s so foreign and we don’t speak the language.’ Being my optimistic young self and naive, I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’ I kept this idea in my head and voiced my opinion to my aunts and uncles and brothers throughout my teenage years and of course, they thought I was crazy!”

Now, 27 years after her father’s death, Belinda wanted to travel from her home in California to the Philippines to find the grave, exhume his bones and have them cremated, then bring his ashes back to the United States. In May, she booked a flight to Manila with no idea how she would find the grave. Then she began to look for help in this quest. This is why she contacted Gaylord.

Gaylord forwarded her message to us, and Lina took over. She knew the location of the cemetery, but it was not certain that Belinda would be able to find the grave if she was able to gain access to the camp. Belinda was to arrive in Manila on July 25 and the camp, or more correctly, the Bataan Technology Park that took over the land where refugee center once stood, was to close down on July 31, terminating its employees and closing its gates.

Even assuming Belinda could get permission to enter the area and find the grave, there were many permits needed from local government: to exhume the body, to cremate the bones, to bring the ashes out of the country. All these things would have to be arranged in a very short period of time. Lina knew the procedure, as she’d helped other families through the process in the period before the camp closed in 1994, but she didn’t underestimate the difficulty of pulling this off before the deadline. Belinda was arriving at the site two days before the camp closure.

Lina was on the phone, email and Facebook right away, talking with friends in Morong below the camp. Ramil was the first person Lina connected to. He helped her contact Espie, the financial analyst at the Technology Park, who was key in negotiating access to the cemetery. Espie’s husband, Abet, handled all the paperwork on the outside. Lina worked closely with them and stayed in touch with Belinda as best she could.

On July 29, Belinda sent us this message, using “Ate” to address and/or name respected female friends: “Hi Ate Lina, We found it. It’s been an amazing day. Still unreal! Such a beautiful sight. It was not easy to see or find but it all worked out perfectly. I met Kuya Ramil and Ate Monette and Ate Espie at the BTPI today. I’ll tell you details later, but it was incredible to find dad’s tombstone still intact and legible. I asked Ate Espie to help me start the process for excavation because I’d like to be able to take his remains, cremate and take him home with me. She told me it could take weeks to months.”

It did not take months, or even weeks. Magically the right doors opened, permissions were given, and on Aug. 3, Belinda’s father was exhumed and cremated. Belinda returned to the U.S. on Aug. 15. She wrote recently: “Yes, I carried my father’s ashes home safe and sound! My brothers, and I plan to spread his ashes in the ocean on his death anniversary, on Nov. 23. 

Yes, you may write the story! .... In fact, I plan to create an online blog just as Gaylord did so others can learn how I did what I did and hopefully inspire others to do the same.”

Belinda’s father began his long journey when he fled Cambodia with his family in 1986. He and his wife and two sons arrived in the refugee center full of hope for a brighter future, as well as grieving the loss of their homeland. An unexpected grief was added when he died and his wife traveled without him to the U.S., where she gave birth to Belinda.

Now 30 years later, Belinda has returned to help her father complete his journey, and her journey has become woven with ours.

David Blair of Harrisville is the
cofounder and former executive director of the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough. He writes about his travels and life the Philippines.

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