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Syrian refugees deserve our compassion, says Vietnam War orphan adopted by Lurgan couple

By Ivan Little

Published 27/02/2016

Vance McElhinney
Vance McElhinney

An orphan from the Vietnam War who owes his life to a Lurgan couple after they adopted him more than 40 years ago has called for the authorities here to offer more homes to refugees from Syria.

Vance McElhinney, who was brought to Northern Ireland after being flown on a mercy mission to the UK from Saigon in 1975, has revealed he has been doing his bit to ease the suffering of thousands of displaced Syrians who have been fleeing via Turkey to Greek islands like Lesbos and Kos.

"My heart broke when I saw those pictures of dead babies on the beaches and boats packed full of refugees crossing from Turkey in the flimsiest of boats, and I thought that it could so easily have been me", Vance (41) said.

"My response to what I saw on the TV was to donate blankets and toiletries to the appeals for help for the refugees. Members of my family in Lurgan have done a lot more than me."

In December the first group of refugees from Syria arrived in Northern Ireland and among the 51 people were a number of children and a two-week-old baby.

Vance was one of 100 babies who were airlifted from Vietnam by the Daily Mail near the end of the war there in 1975. Four of the children died before they could reach the UK.

He was adopted by Cyril and Liz McElhinney who raised him as their own along with their two sons.

Read more: Lurgan man Vance McElhinney's emotional journey of discovery to find his birth parents... and himself  

Vance recently travelled back to Vietnam in a bid to find members of his birth family but he was unsuccessful and his journey is the subject of a BBC NI documentary A Place to Call Home which will be screened on Monday night.

In it Vance talked of the racist abuse he suffered growing up in Lurgan but he said he still believed more Syrian refugees should be resettled in Northern Ireland. "I am all for it. I was a refugee myself and if I hadn't been rescued and subsequently adopted, who knows what my life might have been," he said.

Vance added he knew there were people here who are opposed to refugees being allowed into the UK.

"I hear all this talk of the refugees taking all our jobs and houses, but I am always telling people that they're wrong. If you haven't been in that position yourself then you really can't judge. I was taken out of a war-torn country because my family in Vietnam couldn't look after me. We need to show compassion to people who are facing awful dilemmas in their lives."

Vance was filmed meeting Brian Freemantle for the documentary, the foreign editor of the Daily Mail who organised the airlift for him and the other babies from Vietnam.

The newspaper man told him how all the children were malnourished and suffering.

"From what he told me I have no doubt that even after I was flown out of Vietnam I could have died like a number of the other babies," Vance said.

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