The plane glided above the peaceful green islands below. I looked out of the window in awe. Surely we were headed for paradise! One month earlier, my mission president had informed me that I would be sent to serve in a Vietnamese refugee camp on Palawan, an island between Vietnam and the Philippines. My companion had come from one of the refugee camps in Thailand, where she had been serving with twelve other LDS lady missionaries. She was strong, reliable, and full of charity. I remembered my introduction to her at the airport. I had heard that lady missionaries sent to the refugee camps ran the risk of losing their missionary discipline, and I was almost certain that she had. I feared that my new assignment would cause me to lose mine.
“Sister …” I had started nervously.
“Please call me Ruth,” she politely replied.
“What’s your name?” she asked, smiling.
“Annette.” The word—my own name—sounded strange to my lips.
“Annette, I’m sure we’ll work just fine together.”
“Um, excuse me, but shouldn’t we call each other ‘Sister’? After all, we’re still missionaries.”
“Yes, we are, but you will soon realize we’ll have a greater advantage among the refugees and other volunteers in the camp if we go by nonreligious titles.”
“But what about the gospel. … Surely we can talk about the gospel?”
“No, Annette, I’m afraid we cannot say anything about the Church—except its name.”
“But … but … how will we convert people?” I was really flustered now.
“You will be surprised what a great reaction these people will have to our example. They notice immediately that we’re different from the other volunteers in the camp. Our standards and our values are obvious, and that’s what will help us most.”
I had still been flustered. Why weren’t we allowed to preach in the refugee camp?
It turned out that United Nations’ camp rules prohibited the teaching of religious doctrines by any organization, and our church was entirely willing to comply. Someone had approached Elder Marion D. Hanks and commented that the Mormons were wonderful at taking care of their own, but did not have a reputation for helping others. Elder Hanks had decided that refugee work was a great way for people to see that Mormons truly do believe—and practice—the ideals taught by Christ.
The plane started to land and I thought about the things Ruth had said. Love the people. Serve the people. That was our mission.
The prejudice we felt at the camp when we met the volunteers of other faiths was quite a shock. They were neither courteous nor kind in the beginning. They believed we had hidden motives for being there.
Only one religious volunteer—a Catholic sister—showed us any kind of friendship. But in the coming months, we managed to win the others’ respect through constant hard work and love for the refugees. We taught hundreds of people daily how to survive in western countries. We taught them laws, customs, and modern living.
At one time there were eight thousand refugees crammed into the crowded camp. They lived in small huts with dirt floors—as many as twenty refugees to a hut. Sewage and garbage removal was a problem, and the tropical area was infested with bugs, spiders, and cockroaches. While a few refugees needed instruction on cleanliness, most kept themselves and their clothes spotlessly clean. The refugees worked hard at improving the conditions of the camp. During the several months I was there they planted gardens, constructed places of worship, and even built a restaurant so they could prepare themselves to work in restaurants in their host countries.
Many new volunteers came to the camp, saw the conditions, and left immediately. But we knew we had to stay. We had to prove that we loved the people enough to put up with the conditions.
Occasionally there was also danger. Dirt roads and jungle lay between the camp and the town. Late one night we had just finished teaching and stood waiting for some public transportation. It had been raining for hours, and I was sure that snakes and scorpions covered the dark roads before us. Two soldiers eventually offered us a ride, and deciding we would be safer with the soldiers than we would be waiting, we jumped into their jeep with two other volunteers from the camp.
When we stopped to let one of the soldiers off, suddenly there was a flurry of machine-gunfire all around us. The jeep took off down the road, and the soldier barely had time to jump back in. Our hearts throbbed wildly. No one ever explained to us why we had been shot at. All we knew was that we were grateful to be alive.
One morning as Ruth and I walked down the uneven dirt road in our straw sun hats and thongs I commented, “I never thought my mission would be like this. I wish I could teach the gospel.”
“They need our love right now,” Ruth responded wisely. “They are insecure and frightened. It would not be a sincere conversion. When they get to their new country they can investigate, but right now they must simply survive.”
One day our mission president flew to our island to check our progress. The camp was buzzing with excitement because seven hundred new refugees had just arrived in port. They had been rescued by a German ship, and every refugee was anxious; perhaps a friend or family member was on that ship. We stood in the hot, dirty camp watching the first load of refugees arrive in a garbage truck. Everyone in the camp cheered with excitement.
We made our way as fast as we could to the seaport. The helmsman of the rescue ship was a young Latter-day Saint who had been a great asset in representing the Church among his fellow workers and the refugees. We met him, and he took us aboard.
Just as we jumped aboard, there was thunderous screaming and clapping. We looked at each other in amazement. The refugees were cheering for us. We were the first North Americans they had seen since the war. Now they knew they were free. We watched them hug the crew members and cry. We saw the place where all seven hundred of the refugees had lived for one month at sea. On the wall was written, “As I have loved you, love one another.”
Soon after this at the refugee camp, one of our translators became seriously ill. Chest pains haunted him continually. His wife stayed up night after night, fanning him and trying to bring him comfort. Then one morning he ran up to us. “I have something to tell you!” he exclaimed. We smiled at his excitement. “My friends will laugh at me because I’m supposed to be a Buddhist, but I know you will understand.
“Last night I was in terrible pain. It was so awful and unbearable. I got on my knees and began to pray … not to the Catholic God or the Protestant God, … but to the Mormon God. I said, ‘God, I do not know who you are, but these girls believe in you so much, so I believe in you also. Please take the pain away.’ Then the most beautiful feeling came upon me, and I fell asleep. In the morning I arose and there was no pain, and I said to my wife, ‘When we reach our new country we will become Mormons.’”
Ruth and I walked away, aglow with gratitude for the opportunity to share our love with Heavenly Father’s children.
Annette Stevenson teaches English to refugees and immigrants and serves as Relief Society Home and Family Education teacher in the BYU 114th Ward.