Flight to freedom: A refugee is home at last

Tho Ta // August 3, 2018, 5:05 pm


Photo by Jean Pierre Brungs on

The Vietnam War in the late 1970s saw communists gain control of Vietnam. This led thousands of people to flee the country, fearing for their lives. Although thousands survived the dangerous sea crossings by boat, many more died trying.

My family was among those who survived. We had sold most of our gold to pay the boatmen for our passage to Malaysia. However, the boat was hijacked during the journey by pirates, who stole the little possessions we had left.

Tho (in his late father’s arms) turned one year old at the Pulau Bidon refugee camp, while his younger sister (carried by his mother) was born there. Two young cousins (front) and various paternal relatives lived at Pulau Bidon for almost a year; sadly, his father was the only one of their family not to make it through.

Life on the ship became increasingly difficult. Food was scarce and disease was rampant. I was told that I would have been thrown overboard had the journey taken longer, as I was only a baby and consuming precious resources which the adults needed to survive.

Thankfully, the ship arrived at a refugee camp on Pulau Bidon, an island off Terengganu, Malaysia, before any harm could happen to me, and it was there that I turned a year old.

A new life

Shortly after our arrival, my father began experiencing pain in his stomach and the Red Cross took him to a hospital for treatment. He was placed in a ward with another man who was older and appeared to be very ill. My father’s ailments seemed mild in comparison, and he told my mother that the older man would probably pass away.

However, it was the older man who outlived him.

Having begun my life in poverty, I grew up with the idea that money and power were the ultimate measures of success.

After my father’s death, his ward-mate felt sorry for my mother, confessing to her that he felt that death had taken the wrong man. This led the man to pay for a simple funeral for my father, something our family would not have had the means to do.

After almost a year in the camp, our family gained entry into Australia. A Baptist church in Melbourne helped to resettle us, along with some other refugees. As a result of this connection, my family and I began attending church, mostly on special occasions like Christmas and Easter, and it was there that I learned about the Christian God.

Like most Vietnamese families however, we still held on to the Buddhist traditions and practices of our homeland.

Growing up Aussie: Tho (far right) with his mother and younger sisters, one of whom was born at Pulau Bidon, Malaysia, and the other in Melbourne, Australia – “we were born in three different countries”!

I was also enrolled in a Catholic school, where I participated in many extra-curricular activities and sang in the choir. Through the sermons and messages I heard at school, I formed an impression of God as an angry being who would destroy those who were disobedient.

To add to my distrust of this Christian God, I experienced several unpleasant encounters in church. In one incident, a woman who wanted to ensure my salvation tried to convert me in a forceful way during a church camp. 

After 2,000 years, we have multiple sources of evidence to prove what Jesus says is true, and that God exists.

Having begun my life in poverty, I grew up with the idea that money and power were the ultimate measures of success. Upon graduation from university, I was able to get a good job, got married and thought that I had it all. I owned a Maserati, lived in a nice house and flew business class frequently. 

This went on for many years until 2015, when the “good life” was suddenly taken away from me.

By then, I had moved to Singapore and all was smooth sailing. Unexpectedly, I was given the news at work one day that I had been retrenched. This was truly a wake-up call and a reality check for me. I had thought that I was invincible and indispensable to my company!

It was almost as if history was repeating itself. Yet again, I was alone, in a foreign land, with not much to my name.

Overwhelming evidence

As a result of everything that had happened, I had become very cynical, feeling that life was meaningless and that my friendships were fake.

Around this time, I met someone named Daniel and we soon became friends. I knew he was a Christian, but I enjoyed his company as he never preached his faith to me. Daniel seemed unfazed by my cynicism and regularly engaged in conversations about the meaning of life with me.

These questions about life and death were soon to be tested.

Daniel fell very ill, and had to spend long periods of time in the hospital. I witnessed the way he lived his life during this period – his concern for others never wavered and he never complained, even in the midst of his suffering. I was deeply impacted.

The Ta extended family with the late Jean Gregory (centre back, in gingham dress), whom Tho calls his “Australian Nana”. A member of a Baptist church in Melbourne, Jean had no family of her own and took Tho’s family under her wing when they first arrived in Melbourne.

After Daniel’s health improved, he and his wife decided to run Alpha in their home, and invited friends. Daniel “sold” it to me as a get-together with good food! He was such a dear friend that I instantly agreed, even though I knew it was a Christian-based event.

At the first Alpha session, I heard Nicky Gumbel speak in the video and was amazed.

All those questions I had about life and its meaning were presented in that very first video! It helped me to know that he was once an atheist, and as a lawyer, he needed evidence to examine before he could consider believing in Jesus.

March 2018: Tho with his late paternal grandmother, who had been with him on the refugee boat as they fled Vietnam. She had nine of her 10 children with her, one of whom was Tho’s father.

He said: “All you need to do is decide whether you believe or not. After 2,000 years, we have multiple sources of evidence to prove what Jesus says is true, and that God exists!” The evidence presented in the video was all I needed to take the next step in my journey. 

All those years of pain melted away when I realised how deeply God loved me.

By the time the Alpha Day Away was held at Daniel’s in-laws’ home, I had already accepted Jesus into my life as my Saviour. It was an overwhelming experience to be touched by the Spirit!

Accepting Jesus into my life was one thing, but to be filled with the Spirit was another – one that I cannot adequately describe, but an experience that filled me with an inexpressible sense of joy. It was something I had never felt before!

All those years of pain that I carried with me, from the difficult early years to my recent disappointments – they all melted away in that instant when the Holy Spirit filled me with joy as I realised how deeply God loved me.

Alpha male

My life now is so different from just two years ago. I enjoy reading the Bible and in my conversations with Daniel, I share verses with him and what I have learned. I love history and even more so now that I know the biblical account of what God has done for His people.

One of the verses I love is Revelations 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

It reminds me that God is always seeking us, even when we close the door on Him. He is such a faithful God.

Tho, who became a believer through Alpha, now facilitates Alpha courses several times a year, together with his cell group.

Reading the Bible without the passion fuelled by the Holy Spirit would be a dry and boring experience. I’ve realised that in my Christian walk, amazing things happen when the Spirit takes over!

When I first started attending church, one of the things I loved was the worship (Psalm 33:3). I still do, which is why I am a worship leader in my cell group. 

My new love for the Bible is similar to my love for music – learning it the traditional way by passing examinations can make a good musician, but passion will make them a great and enduring one. Even though I’m not a very good singer or a piano player, when I play songs of worship, I play so much better than I normally do!

I want to continue to see God through a lens of awe and wonder, with simple faith and joy in Him.

I speak to many Christians who have been believers for a long time, and I feel that their faith has become stale. That is why I want to continue to be involved in Alpha, and in doing so, I am hopeful that the joy I have now won’t fade away!

I want to continue to see God through a lens of awe and wonder, with simple faith and joy in Him. I love telling jokes to my kids and I can repeat the same joke over and over again – and they will still laugh at it! Similarly, Jesus teaches that we need to have that child-like faith and to be with Him like a child.

My life is a lot simpler now. I run my own business and as a start-up, there are both good and bad days at work, but through all this, I have seen God’s blessings in so many ways.

Friends will offer to buy me meals and I find simple joys in the communities that I belong to at church and with my small group.

Surprisingly, I don’t feel bitter that my old “good life” was taken away. People often say that it is bad to have to start all over again. But I realise now, a new beginning was what I needed to see who God is, and that all I had before meant nothing because I didn’t know Him.

At the same time, I realise that in a first world country like Singapore, I am still better off than many others – I am fed, sheltered and clothed. I don’t feel that I’m going through hardship, in fact I feel more blessed than I have ever felt before!

Many years ago, when I was at university, I questioned a friend about her Christian faith and when she shared it with me I laughed and scoffed at her for being so gullible.

The irony is that 25 years later I now laugh at myself for my ignorance back then! I now know, understand and have experienced all that she described to me.

Christ is indeed a gift that is freely given to everyone. Sometimes, it just takes the journey of a lifetime to find and truly discover it.

This story was first published in Alpha Buzz, an annual publication by Alpha Singapore, and was republished with permission. 

About the author

Tho Ta

Escaping Vietnam as a baby, Tho Ta spent time at a refugee camp before beginning a new life in Australia. Now living in Singapore, Tho is a Director at CloudE8 Pte Ltd, which guides businesses to achieve digital transformation. He also co-facilitates Alpha courses together with his cell group and attends Cornerstone Community Church.