Joe Young (middle) and UNHCR volunteer staff-Galang refugee camp 1985


How I Got Involved with Refugees


When I got offered a job at Singapore International School in the fall of 1972, I was hired, on a 3-year contract, to teach Music, World History, and American Studies.  For the first two subjects, I was to fill in some gaps in the Music and History Departments, neither of which justified a new full-time teacher.  The American Studies course need was due to the large number of American students that had joined the school that year; if they were to be eligible to apply to US colleges and universities, such a course was needed as part of their secondary education; I taught this course for only several years, as this particular requirement for US students was later dropped by US tertiary institutions.  The school prior to that year had been operated for and by the British; but with the pull-out of the British forces from Singapore that year, such a set-up was no longer appropriate or even possible, so the school became a private international school, run by a Board of Governors, mainly from the international business community.  Nonetheless, during my entire 6 years at this school, I was the only (token? ^_^) American teacher, on a teaching staff of nearly 100 persons, all the rest of whom were from the British Isles or the Commonwealth (including those locally hired). 

The American Studies course is a tale in itself, so I’ll put that to the side for the moment.  More importantly, I became very actively involved in the Music Departments activities, forming and conducting a senior mixed chorus, an orchestra, and a concert band.  I also initiated and ran a Music Centre on Saturday mornings, where school facilities were used by the private teachers I had arranged to come in and give musical instrumental lessons to those students wishing such (who paid the teachers directly); a few years later, the Centre expanded to Vocal and Dance as well.  I also conducted 3 different Choruses for our 1972 Christmas Concert (with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” as the finale!), and was asked to be the Conductor for the Benjamin Britten opera, Noyes’ Fludde, which the school put on in the spring of 1973: a cast of hundreds, with a student orchestra of about 40, dozens of “animals for the ark” from local primary schools, and professionals including the 2 lead singers brought out from UK, a Recorder Player, and a String Quintet.  So the following school year, when the Music Department Head went back to UK, I was named Acting Head of the Department; during my 3rd, 4th, and 5th years at the school, I was the proper Head of the Music Department.

Meantime, the school changed its name and highlighted its focus, becoming the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), with the purpose of international understanding through education.  The students’ ages ranged from 12 through 20, and were divided into 3 groups:  Lower school (= US Grades 7 and 8), Middle School (Grades 9, 10, and 11), and Upper School (Grades 12 + Jr College).  Indeed, we had students from over 40 different countries, from every continent, from many different ethnic backgrounds, and so when I was asked to teach an Ethics course, which was compulsory for all Middle School students, it was a real challenge – another tale in itself!  In addition to Ethics (my BA degree is in Philosophy; my MA work was in Music, Latin, Theology, and TESL), I was also brought aboard the team that was teaching Southeast Asian Studies, mainly because of my years of living in the area up to that time.  Then, another gap appeared in the Language Department, and I was asked, and happily agreed, to teach an intermediate Latin course during my last 2 years at UWCSEA.  Finally, as regards my work in the College, there was a thoroughgoing rearrangement at the end of my 5th year there, and I was asked, and again happily agreed, to become Head of the Ethics and Philosophy Department

One of the duties of the Head of the Ethics and Philosophy Department at UWCSEA was to be responsible for all the social service activity at the College.  There were a dozen or so groups of students, each with an accompanying teacher, who spent 1 afternoon each week giving some help to those needing it: the blind, deaf, old folks, orphans, mentally challenged, etc.  I, during my last 5 years at the College, went one afternoon each week with a group of about 8 to 10 students to the Perak House Orphanage, where we helped the primary school boys with their school lessons (I was asked to help the one high school boy who lived there); my work with Perak House blossomed during my last year in Singapore – again another tale for another time.  Anyhow, we also had a Student Social Services Committee, which managed all the specific requests for help that came to the College.  At the beginning of the year we had close to 10 requests, so as their Advisor, I suggested to the students that they discuss them, then take a vote to prioritize which ones they would handle first, second, and so on.  One of the requests was for old clothes, toys, and books for the Vietnamese refugees, who had just started to land in great numbers in nearby Malaysia by boat.  The students voted unanimously to handle the request to help the refugees first.  So they set up a programme asking the College students to donate the requested items – the response was overwhelmingly positive: we had thousands and thousands of used articles of clothing, books, and toys, and we had the happy problem of where to temporarily store the items.  So I found out who had made the request, a British lady living in Malaysia, and phoned her; she put me onto the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS -- the Muslim version of the Red Cross), who were dealing with the refugees on behalf of the Malaysian government.  They told me over the phone: “Don’t worry, we’ll come over to Singapore ourselves and pick up the items, but what we want you to do is to come up to the camp at Pulau Tengah (an island off the east coast of the town of Mersing in the southern Malaysian state of Johor) and help the refugees set up English classes, as most of them will be resettled in English-speaking countries.”  Well, this bowled me over, but I immediately agreed to just come up to have a look, to see if there was anything I could do to help.  Interestingly, these MRC fellows had no idea who I was or what my background was; surely, they had no knowledge of the fact that I had been trained in the Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL) at the University of Hawaii as part of my US Peace Corps training in 1967.  Later, when musing on this fact, I realized that what we Christians would call Divine Providence, and what followers of many other Asian religions would call Destiny, was at work here.

So the next weekend, together with the MRCS guys – a great bunch of fellows! – plus a local Catholic Padre and an Irish nun (many of the Vietnamese refugees, I was later to learn, were Catholics – they were actively persecuted by the Communist government in their country; even though they were only about 10% of the country’s population, in any given SE Asian camp at any given moment, a good 40% were Catholics) , I went up to Mersing and on out to Pulau Tengah.  That Saturday, we spent about 4 or 5 hours in Pulau Tengah camp – it was the day that changed my life.  During the whole time I was there I had to continually bite my lip to stop myself from crying.  I had never seen, face to face, such a terrible human situation before.  I had been amongst the native Iban people in the jungles of Sarawak, East Malaysia during my Peace Corps days, and saw that the few months before the harvest came in, some of them had to come down to the towns to sell their handicrafts in order to get money to buy rice to prevent starvation; so I had experienced human hardship before.   But nothing like this.  There were 2000 people in a small camp built for 600: old grandmoms and grandpas, little infants, and all in between – all stateless, and at the utter mercy of anyone who would help them.  The priest said Mass for the Catholic sector of the refugees, and I sat in the back where few could see me, and cried my eyes out.  During our stay, I also met with some of the English-speaking refugees, and I finally told them, I’d come up the next weekend to help them get classes set up, and gave them a few suggestions on what they might do to get prepared.  As we left the camp that Saturday afternoon, I knew I had a new (immediate) future which had been handed to me.  I made myself 2 promises as I stepped onto the boat to leave the camp: (1) I would spend all my spare time in the foreseeable future working to help these people as best I could; and (2) I would never again allow myself to have a long, sad face in the refugee camp; a sad demeanor was the last thing that the refugees needed, so I promised that I would be an ever-smiling person when I was among them.

That was in early October 1977.  I did return the next week, and every weekend, and all school holidays, from then until I left Singapore in early July 1978, at the end of my 2nd 3-year contract with UWCSEA, to return home to the States.  My approach to the ESL classes:  There were 3 levels established, beginner, intermediate, and advanced.  The advanced students were the ones who became the ESL teachers for all the others – most of the students were beginners, with only a class or two of intermediates.  Every weekend, I trained the teachers in the ESL techniques they would need for the next week’s teaching, based on a course which I drew up for them, copies of each class session of which I brought along each week, and passed on to them after I had taught them the techniques.  I also held classes each weekend for the intermediate students, and a sort of speaking-reading practice class for the advanced students as a reward for their generosity in teaching.  Early on, the problem arose of where to hold the classes.  Some of the more senior of the teachers and I met with the Refugee Camp Committee (the Vietnamese, I very quickly learned, are excellent ‘organizers’), and we decided to build 4 simple enclosed areas in the cemented meeting area of the camp.  The following week, I brought with me (out of my own pocket) to the camp all the wood, nails, tools, etc, needed to do this building (yes, I became a building contractor! ^_^).  But a problem immediately became apparent: the Camp Cttee had assured me the week before that there was an excellent carpenter in the camp who could oversee/carry out the construction; but when I arrived with all the materials I was told that he was refusing to do any work, as he was still too shook up from his escape from Vietnam.  So I took several of the pieces of wood, and several nails, and began to build the rooms myself.  Well, the refugees were apparently extremely embarrassed by this (it was probably painfully obvious that I was not a carpenter! ^_^) and somehow were able to coax the carpenter to come down and relieve me of the work.  So he got a crew of young men together and promised me that by the time I returned the following week the 4 rooms would be operational and in good shape – and indeed, they were, and the carpenter and I became great friends.

As things turned out, ESL work was not the only thing I got involved in  Here are some examples of some other things.  On that very first visit, during the boat ride from the camp to the mainland, the good Sister was reading out to all of us the list she had made of the things the refugees had requested her to get for them – milk powder for babies, flashlights and batteries, birth control pills and condoms,….  After reading this last item, she stopped and said, “I don’t know why they would be asking me for such a thing, in their present situation,” and then went on reading the list.  Well, the good ol’ gray-haired Irish religious woman was no dummy; she knew there were some of her listeners who would take that particular request very seriously indeed.  When we got to the mainland, I had a longish conversation with 2 European (turns out they were American!) guys who were with us in the camp and on the boat listening to Sister; they too were on their way back to Singapore.  They were both Doctors working with the large 7th Day Adventist Hospital in Singapore.  They told me straightaway that they really wanted to give every help they possibly could to the refugees, but they certainly would not be able to come up to the camp regularly.  I told them that I was planning to come up every weekend, so we made a deal that I would carry up with me the medicines and medical tools that they wanted to give the refugees (there were several Vietnamese refugee medical Doctors already in the camp); they also agreed to give me, for the next weekend, two big boxes, one of thousands of condoms and the other of thousands of packets of birth control pills.  That following Friday evening, I got one of my good Singapore friends to carry one of the boxes across the border in her jeep, and I carried the other in my car, and we met in the town of Johor Bahru at a prearranged spot.  And so began my career as a smuggler, which I exercised every week for the next months, and then again some 25 years later, a bit north of Malaysia.  I carried ‘medical things’ in, almost every week.  Soon word somehow got around Singapore of my wanderings up to the refugee camp at weekends, and every Friday morning, 2 or 3 big boxes of large tins of baby milk powder would arrive at UWCSEA, with a note on top:  “For Joe Young’s Island Babies.”  These were a pure gift (I did not seek them, but said “Yes” when asked if I could ‘use them’) from the Chief Matron in the Pediatric Wing of one of Singapore’s largest hospitals.  Then in the early afternoon before I took off for Mersing in my car, I would have to stop round at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in center city, to collect a whole bunch of bottles of Vietnamese fish sauce from a Vietnamese nun there, to take up for the refugees.

So, for sure, the refugees consumed a lot of my time, happily (for I knew I had found, in my refugee work, something that I loved to do even more than teaching), not just when I was there with them on weekends and school holidays, but also during the week whenever I was not teaching class at UWCSEA or over at Perak House.  I had to write up the class lessons for the ESL course in the evenings, and then get them printed off.  And during the days I was busy with what I thought of as my “2 pocket projects”.  The 1st pocket:  At that time, the government of Malaysia did not allow the Vietnamese refugees to post any mail out of the country, but, of course, the refugees wanted to let their relatives, both back home in Vietnam and in other countries when they had relatives elsewhere, know that they had safely arrived.  Very soon after I started going up to the camp every weekend, the MRCS gave me my personal MRCS card, so I became a card-carrying member of the MRCS, in case any official person questioned what I was doing.  The refugees began to ask me to help them to send letters from Singapore, so I asked my MRCS colleagues what to do, and they agreed that I could take mail to Singapore as long as I did it discreetly.  After that, I always carried a bag in the camp, so the refugees knew that all they had to do was to come up and hand me their letter(s); I’d put their letter(s) in my bag, and any money they could give me (poor folks knew that this was not necessary, but those better off financially knew that they were expected to give what they could) in my left front trousers pocket.  The 2nd pocket:  In the early days of the exodus of refugees from Vietnam, the government of that country directly and specifically tried to rid itself of all those people of Chinese ancestry who lived in Vietnam.  They even went so far as to force them onto boats leaving for southern parts.  The result was that in the first 5 years or so of the exodus, you could find up to 50% of the Vietnamese refugees in any given camp in SE Asia were of Chinese ethnicity.  So once the word was out that I was going back and forth to Singapore each week, many of the Chinese refugees on Pulau Tengah would ask me to buy for them in Singapore Chinese-English language-learning cassettes;  I insisted that they had to give me enough money for these (not a problem for most of them), and clearly write on a piece of paper their names and the name of the cassettes they wanted me to buy – the info and the money went into my right front trousers pocket. So, each week, I would spend my daylight hours when I wasn’t teaching, either sorting through from 400 to 500 letters, and then taking them to the Post Office, getting stamps, putting the stamps on the envelopes, and then putting them into the mailboxes, or going from shop to shop in center city trying to find, say, around 30 cassettes that had been requested (mostly I had no problem); I was rarely ‘out of pocket’ personally from all this – the refugees knew from the start that I did not bring “change” back to them.  Such were my “2 pocket projects”.

During 1977-1978, the UNHCR had only 1 man covering the entire east coast of Malaysia; by the time I got back there in April 1980, there were 3 Sub-Offices, and about 30 people covering the same area.  When I met the fellow in late 1977 in Pulau Tengah, we had long chats, and he told me he was very happy with the work I was doing, and asked me to try to also get up north to Kuala Trengganu, to help them in similar ways.  By January 1978, the ESL programme at Pulau Tengah was going along quite smoothly, so I decided to try to take a trip up north one weekend.  I did not want to leave the Pulau Tengah refugees with no help, so I was able to get UWCSEA teaching colleagues, a husband-wife team, to come up and help there whenever I went up north.  The week before I was going to go up north for the first time, I brought them to the camp to introduce them to the refugees and the situation.  When we got there, I noticed that the refugee in charge of the Education Programme had put a sign up at one entrance to the 4 classrooms:  “Joe Young English School”.  He had done this as a surprise for me, but he was the one who was surprised when I brought along 2 others to help with the ESL work.  So the sign quickly came down.  Several weeks later, when I was back at Pulau Tengah, I noticed the sign up again, but altered to “Joe Young and Friends English School”.  This was extremely charming, and more appropriate than the refugees realized, as the husband-wife team that was helping me were both of the Quaker religion, and the Quakers always refer to their group as “Friends”.  The situation up north in Kuala Trengganu was not at all a good one, for, as later came out very clearly, the MRCS folks up there (each state had its own contingent of the national Society) were corrupt, taking kickbacks, running prostitution rings, etc.  Several of them eventually spent time in jail for their misdeeds.  Those were the days before Pulau Bidong was established, and the refugees lived on Pulau Besar.  I had several projects going there, nevertheless.  I was able to get some classes started on the same basis as Pulau Tengah, and even was preparing to build an octagonal school house (designed by that infamous architect, Joe Young ^_^) before all activity was halted because of the soon-to-come move to Pulau Bidong.  I had, however, helped them to build and establish a camp library, at the request of the Chief Librarian of the Saigon Public Library who was a refugee there at the time; I brought up hundreds of books from Singapore in one of the UWCSEA vans, which the College let me use any weekend I was going up north, for the trip was an all-night drive for me, and my little Ford escort was really not up to it; this was one of the few times that the Customs men at the Malaysian border stopped me and seriously questioned what I was doing with all those books.  After making me wait a while, they let me through, but when I got up to Pulau Besar, the Malaysian security detail said that they would have to check through all the books before they could let the refugees get to them – in the end, they only kept back just 1 book, a spy thriller!  My other Pulau Besar project was providing art supplies for several artists in the camp, who were running classes for other refugees – especially for the young men; I felt keeping those young men busy in such a way was something to support.

So that was my introduction to refugees and refugee work.  Based on the word of my UWCSEA teaching colleagues who kept the ESL programme at Pulau Tengah going even after I returned to the States, UNHCR approached me early in 1980 in New York City and offered me a job with UNHCR Malaysia as Education Officer, and that started me on 8 years as an international officer with UNHCR, in Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Pakistan.  Interestingly, Providence/Destiny was at work in the details of this job offer as well.  I had been ill with the flu for 3 or 4 days, and then came the weekend, so I told my boss that I expected that I’d be able to be back to work on Monday.  But when I woke up on Monday morning I was not feeling at all well, so I called in and told them that I had better take just one more day.  Several hours later, I got a phone call from the UNHCR Rep for Malaysia, who was in town just for that day, and wanted to see me.  So I went down to his hotel, dressed in my best, and ended up with the UNHCR job offer.  He told me that he only had my home phone number, not my office number, and that if I had not answered, he had the phone number of another candidate that he would have called.  Now is that Providence/Destiny, or what?!?


Joe Young (1939-2020)

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