Condensed milk and ingredients of hope on World Refugee Day

First Person: Memories of Anh Nguyen, the Chief of Mission in Ukraine of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency.

Sweetened condensed milk consists of one part of concentrated pasteurized whole milk, two thirds of sugar and one fourth of butter or some variation of those parts.

But it can also taste like concentrated comfort and hope.

That is how it tasted to me in 1975 when I was celebrating my fifth birthday on a retired U.S. patrol torpedo boat heading from Vietnam to Guam with my family and other refugees on board.

We were among the last to flee from the conflict and managed to escape the day of the fall of Saigon. We left with pretty much nothing. My mom gave us green fabric bags with family pictures in them, so if we got lost and separated in that chaos, we would be able to show the pictures of our parents and family as a form of identification.

On the boat, each family would have a daily ration of plain rice porridge served in a military helmet. On my birthday, one of my dad’s friends surprised me with a can of sweetened condensed milk out of nowhere. Though my memory was vague on this, my parents have since recanted the story of how I drank the whole can in one sitting – the best birthday present ever!

Then there was a long journey to a refugee camp in Arkansas. We were among the lucky ones to be sponsored quickly and moved to New York, where we spent our first Christmas and started our life from scratch.

Since then, in both good and troubled times I always have at least one can of sweetened condensed milk in stock. Not only is it still sweet, but now it is a reminder of the journey my family and I went through and the fortunate opportunity afforded to us to start a new life free of conflict and turmoil.

World Refugee Day is marked every year on June 20, and I find myself with the memories of that boat trip towards the new beginnings. I tell the story of the journey to my children and show them those pictures from the green bag which I held so dearly.

Crowd of refugees
Refugees and migrants wait to be transfered from the island of Lesbos to the Greek main land on May 3, 2020. - On the Aegean island of Lesbos, more than 19,000 asylum seekers live in the overcrowded and unhealthy camp of Moria, the fear of a pandemic is even great. Some 100,000 asylum seekers are currently stranded in Greece after other European states closed their borders in 2016.

As the Chief of Mission of International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Migration Agency, in Ukraine, and one who experienced first-hand what it is like to flee from conflict, I would like to congratulate UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on this day for their efforts in protecting refugees worldwide, and for 25 years of their work in Ukraine.

Currently, we all are living through troubled times, but some are particularly vulnerable. World Refugee Day has never witnessed such a global ordeal for refugees and migrants like the one posed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Among over 79 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 45.7 million internally displaced persons and 26 million refugees, many have repeatedly lost their income opportunities. Many are again unable to see their families and friends. Many are stranded or in fear for their health staying in overcrowded camps or reception centres.

In Ukraine, the six years of ongoing hostilities have led to limited access to markets and income opportunities. Internally displaced and conflict-affected people need particular support. The COVID-19 outbreak has led to further isolation, cutting jobs and driving the prices up. This is a new ordeal for people who have been struggling to earn a living and find their place in the world after they had to leave everything behind.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, is working together with the Government of Ukraine and partners to assess the needs and provide much-needed support for health, economic, social and psychosocial recovery of affected individuals and communities.

During the lockdown, many of us were dreaming of going out and having a cup of coffee in a park. Maybe even a cup of Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, a drink which is gaining popularity worldwide and became a brand of the country my family and I had to flee from 45 years ago.

Life is always a bittersweet mixture, exactly as the Vietnamese iced coffee is. While we are enjoying the flavours, let’s remember those whose life is so much more bitter. They need our support and solidarity. Fulfilling their rights to protection and non-discrimination should be as easy as getting a can of sweetened condensed milk today.


Original story was published on KyivPost on 20 June 2020.

Written by
Anh Nguyen
Chief of Mission
Anh Nguyen
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