How of a group of refugees stranded off the shores of Vietnam somehow ended up in a small town in southern Israel...
Somewhere on the face of this earth, lives a man in his 40s named Ofek. This man, the son of Vietnamese parents, received this name simply because he was born here in the State of Israel, in the town of Ofakim.
It’s difficult to imagine what he might be going through during these difficult days. Has he heard of the bloody events of October 7? Does he know of the terrible massacre that was carried out in his place of birth, the place for which he is named? We may never know.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Opposite the shores of Vietnam, a fishing boat containing 66 men, women, and children fleeing the horrors of war in their country, found itself adrift in the South China Sea. An Israeli freighter, the Yoveli, noticed the rickety vessel. Its captain, Amnon Tadmor, decided to take all the refugees onto his ship, saving 30 men, 16 women, and 20 children, all of them exhausted after experiencing such an ordeal. It turned out that their engine had broken down, leaving them stranded at sea for four days without food or water.
All that remained was finding them a home. Taiwan, Captain Tadmor’s original destination, said “No.” Japan and Hong Kong also refused. Even the Israeli Foreign Ministry initially replied that bringing the refugees to Israel was “impractical and out of the question.”
But the story hit the headlines in Israel, and ultimately reached the Knesset, where Knesset Member Yossi Sarid submitted an urgent proposal for the parliamentary agenda, calling on the government to absorb the refugees. The government was changing hands in those days, as shortly before, the Likud party had managed a historic victory in the national elections that brought to an end nearly 30 years of dominance by the Mapai party and its predecessors. Now, on June 19, a day before he was set to introduce his government to the Knesset for a vote of confidence, incoming Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared his first official decision: taking in the refugees.
“We will never forget the ship which left Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the passengers who had Cuban visas which were not honored,” Begin explained, justifying his decision. “No other country wanted to accept them, and after the ship was brought back to Germany, many of those who were on its deck went to the gas chambers. We, as the Jewish state, will not tolerate this injustice to humanity as done in the past, and we will therefore grant refuge to these refugees who chose freedom.”
Days afterward, the refugees were in Israel, where were they sent to the small town of Ofakim.
There was great excitement with the arrival of the refugees. Hundreds of residents from the modest town received the Vietnamese with great excitement. “We receive you with joy, just as we received our Jewish brothers who made Aliyah to the country,” said Chaim Raviv, Director of the Absorption Ministry for the Negev District at the celebratory reception. “You are wanted by us in all respects, and we will do everything to make your stay easier here.”
And indeed, the treatment of the Vietnamese was heartfelt. They were given warm meals, medical treatment, and were even sent to learn Hebrew at the local ulpan (Hebrew language school). The refugees were also given tours of the area so they could get to know the surroundings and locals a little better. This enabled them to feel more comfortable in their new, temporary home. “The food and atmosphere and the people here,” they were quoted as saying, “it’s all very good.” The town and the people of Israel lovingly received these Vietnamese refugees, to the extent that many wanted to adopt the orphaned children among them – requests which, as far as we have been able to discover, were rejected due to the desire to maintain the refugees as a single homogenous unit.
The local council in Ofakim hoped the national and even global interest in the refugees might generate some good press for the town itself. “I want people in the country to know that Ofakim is a ‘garden city’, dipped in greenery, even though it is in the Negev,” said council head Yechiel Bentov, who hoped that new olim (Jewish immigrants) would also come to his town to establish a permanent home for themselves in the south.
And that’s the end of the story. After spending a few months in Israel, the refugees moved on to their next destinations. But there is no doubt that they took the big hearts of the people of Ofakim with them, forever.
And Ofek? If you’re reading this, let us know. We’d love to know how you’re doing.
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”. Click here to see all of the articles and stories.