Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people attend 40th anniversary reunion for Sopley refugees
AN emotional reunion was held for Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people who were welcomed to Sopley as refugees 40 years ago.
There were tears and laughter as around 140 people gathered for the Sopley Reception Centre reunion at Bransgore village hall.
Former reception centre worker Karyn Smith, who helped organise the event, said it was a “very special” day for former refugees and staff members.
Karyn said: “It was all very emotional. People brought along photos from their time here 40 years ago and shared stories of their experiences.
“Several of our former refugees spoke about their time at Sopley – what they have been through and how they were looked after and shown compassion and love.
“The ones who were here as children are now in their 40s or 50s and have children of their own.
“Some of them have gone on to become doctors and, in some cases, run their own businesses.”
Karyn worked as an administrator at the Sopley centre from its founding in May 1979 until it closed its doors in September 1982.
During those years, the centre housed almost 3,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people who fled their homes in overcrowded vessels following the rise of communist regimes, including the brutal Khmer Rouge.
The first 600 refugees who stayed at the Sopley centre were picked up by the British cargo ship SS Sibonga in the South China Sea in 1979.
The Sopley site has since been redeveloped as housing but last September a plaque was unveiled there to commemorate its history as a refugee centre.
Karyn said many of the reunion attendees visited Sopley to take photos of the memorial plaque.
She added: “Sopley was quite unique as a refugee reception centre at that time but, sadly, what with Ukraine and Syria, it’s a lot less unique now.
“The people at the reunion came from all over the UK and it was lovely to see them all here again.
“They have all shown so much determination to work hard – arriving in a new country with nothing and just getting on with it.
“Myself and everyone else involved in setting up the reunion were quite anxious as to how it was going to go but it all went very well.”