A voyage of discovery for the boat children

First publication in Sydney Morning Herald on April 21, 1993

It’s difficult for Malisa Saymontry, a 16-year-old high school student living in Cabramatta, to identify with the suffering and hardship her family endured to bring her to Australia in 1977.

“It doesn’t feel real to me.” Malisa Saymontry, center, with her mother, Khan, at the Discoveries exhibit on April 20, 1993.Credit: Patrick Cummins

Her mother, Mrs Khan Saymontry, has told her the stories of her birth off the coast of Malaysia while the family was stranded on board a leaking tanker for four months. The news finally reached the world and the UN brought the 250 Indochinese refugees to freedom.

“It doesn’t feel real to me — I grew up here,” Malisa said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not Asian enough… but I’m not really Australian.”

Malisa is among a group of high school students living in western Sydney who have contributed to an exhibition at a shopping center in Cabramatta designed to educate young Indo-Chinese people about their heritage.

Ms Saymontry, then 29, fled Laos to Thailand with her husband and two-year-old daughter, where they were smuggled to Australia along with Vietnamese, Cambodian and other Laotian refugees aboard a rusting tanker.

The 150 adults and 100 children on board were told the journey would take 15 days. The 1,500-ton Leapdal only made it as far as Singapore, where it drifted offshore for months, taking on water but was not allowed to be brought ashore by Malaysian or Singaporean authorities.

A month after the ordeal, Mrs. Saymontry gave birth to Malisa. She received extra water from Malaysian fishermen to feed the baby powdered milk until members of the Chinese business community in Singapore arranged for regular shipments of food and water for the refugees.

“The conditions were very bad. The [drinking] Water was all rusty. We had to sleep on deck and it was very wet at night,” said Ms Saymontry.

Justin Scaccy

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