Refugee orphan heads for promised land of adoption

NGO VAN HA hitched up his new jeans, turned to the media and said in near perfect English: ''I never want to see Hong Kong again!'' The 16-year-old Vietnamese orphan was at Kai Tak airport and about to board a flight to Tokyo and onwards to Los Angeles - yesterday was his first day of freedom in a Western society.

He now hopes to sample all that his new home in San Gabriel, California, has to offer and that means hamburgers, surf and what Ha says is most important of all - an education.

Ha, who arrived in Hong Kong in a boat in 1990, was at the centre of a controversy for many months when moves were made to forcibly repatriate him to Vietnam rather than reunite him with relatives in the United States.

In February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees overturned its earlier decision and gave permission for Ha to go to the US after information came to light that his relatives in Vietnam did not want him.

Yesterday, although a little anxious about his first flight, Ha was thrilled to be leaving the territory for a new life.

''I am so happy, the only thing I am sad about is leaving some of my friends behind,'' he said.

''I am happy to be leaving Hong Kong and will not come back here. I do want to go back to Vietnam one day.'' Ha has been practising his English almost non-stop since he learned of the decision to send him to the US and people seeing Ha off at the airport yesterday noticed a huge improvement.

''I bought a dictionary off a man in the camp and I have been reading it every day.'' Ha said life in Hong Kong's detention centres had been tough and he worried about the future of his friends remaining here who would have to return to Vietnam.

''There's nothing to do behind the barbed wire. But I can't imagine how I would have survived if I was sent back to Vietnam.

''My plans now are to work very hard at school, get a job and get enough money to bring my brother and sister from Vietnam to the US.'' Ha said he realised he was one of the lucky few who managed to secure a home in the US and that he was being given the opportunity of a lifetime.

''I also know that there are many problems in the US with drugs and crime but there is an opportunity for an education that I have never had,'' he said.

Ha's parents were killed in a car crash when he was 10 years old.