On a repatriation flight from India, I saw hope

By Pham Sanh Chau   June 18, 2021 | 11:14 am GMT+7
I began to write these words at the Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi on the night of June 14 when thoughts filled my mind.
Pham Sanh Chau.

Pham Sanh Chau

The repatriation flight that was supposed to take us home from India was approved but delayed repeatedly for months, thanks to the coronavirus situation back home. But the wait is over; we are finally coming back.

The 180 passengers on the flight may be from all walks of life, but all we want is to set foot again on Vietnamese soil. We have been waiting for it for oh so long.

Huong, one of the passengers, first met Sanjeet when she visited China on a business trip. Love soon blossomed between them and gave them twin boys. The couple moved to Quang Ngai to live.

When the boys turned three, she decided to take them to India to see their paternal grandparents. They live in a remote mountainous area about four hours away from Varanasi.

Then the pandemic came. Their original flight to Vietnam at the end of March 2020 was canceled, and Huong and her children had been in India for a year and a half now.

Though the Vietnamese embassy has organized several repatriation flights for Vietnamese to return home, the boys were not eligible: They had Indian passports.

The Vietnamese government only allows Indian investors and experts to enter and with a guarantee from their employers. Huong's children's visa waivers have been suspended.

Born and raised in Vietnam, the boys do not exactly fit in in their poor rural Indian neighborhood and cry every day.

Huong had tried so many times to find a way to bring them home but to no avail. She has been contacting me over the past year for help. The boys eventually got tickets to fly to Vietnam with their mother.

Minh, another passenger, is a fisherman with a wife and two children in Phu Quoc. He listened to a friend and traveled to Thailand to sell seafood to find a way to escape poverty.

After two years there, his employer told him to go to Nepal with some seafood samples to strike a deal with a potential partner.

At the Thai airport, the employer checked Minh's suitcase in. But in Nepal, authorities found forged currency notes beneath the seafood samples. Minh was jailed for eight years.

The pandemic had broken out just before his release, and by the time he was out all flights to Vietnam had been canceled. His passport was about to expire, and I had to ask the ambassador in Nepal to contact a pilot and get him to deliver his passport to Nepal.

By that time Minh's wife had already left him. His parents and children have been waiting for him all this time. The old couple even feared they would not live long enough to see him one more time.

Vietnamese in protective suits prepare for their repatriation flight back to Vietnam in May 2020. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Vietnamese in protective suits prepare for their repatriation flight back to Vietnam in May 2020. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Trung is a deputy director at infrastructure firm Song Da that won a bid to build a dam in Nepal’s Tanahun Province. When he flew over to sign the agreement, he had thought it would not be a long trip. But then all flights home were canceled due to the pandemic, stranding Trung and two other colleagues in Nepal for months.

When he heard about the repatriation flight, Trung was ecstatic. It took him about five hours to reach Kathmandu, from where he intended to fly to New Delhi and then straight home to Vietnam. But his flight to New Delhi was four days before the repatriation flight, and his visa for a stay in India was only for three days.

We tried everything we could, but nothing worked. So he had to take a 27-hour journey by car and bus to New Delhi instead.

On our flight were also two expecting mothers: Nguyen Thi Huong Lan and Tong Khanh Minh.

Lan, who was 3.5 months pregnant at the time, had been living in New Delhi. But as her baby bump got bigger, she became weaker, but the pandemic prevented her from going to a clinic at a time when she needed close obstetric care.

My daughter was pregnant as well, and so I understood her concern. Contracting Covid-19 could pose a threat to both her and her child's lives.

"I was afraid of not making it back to Vietnam once the fetus got too big," Lan told me through tears.

Eight-year-old Tuan had a tumor beneath his cerebellum. A Singaporean hospital said his tumor was malignant and rare, and posed an extremely high risk to his life. He had undergone surgeries, chemo and radiotherapy. But the Singaporean doctors eventually suggested that he be taken to Apollo Cancer Hospital in Chennai for further treatment.

After over 30 radiotherapy sessions in a year and a half, Tuan's condition improved. But by that time his family was physically and financially exhausted. They wanted to take him back to Vietnam, both to avoid the coronavirus and to reduce his treatment costs.

This repatriation flight was a matter of life-or-death for him and his family.

The snippets from people’s lives I've narrated are just some of many. There were people who had to travel great distances to reach the airport and made it only thanks to the ceaseless efforts by Vietnamese and Indian authorities to help them.

But everything was set to end well, and that made me so happy I could die.

I wish there are no more delayed flights and everyone is able to return home safe and sound.

After all, that is how we make sure no one gets left behind amid this pandemic.

*Names of people have been changed to protect their identity.

*Pham Sanh Chau is the Vietnamese ambassador to India and a veteran diplomat. The opinions expressed are his own.

 
 
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