When Carol Xuan was 10 years old her father picked her up out of the blue from the family home in Hai Duong, Vietnam and bundled her on to a rickety boat. She had no idea where she was going. That was 27 years ago, and while the destination is no longer a mystery, to this day she has no idea why. Xuan, now 37, was embarking on a harrowing and dangerous 14-day sea voyage during which she would encounter storms, sleep deprivation and severe hunger which forced her and her fellow boat people to stop off in villages along the coast of China to beg for rice. As dreams of hope battled the little girl's very real fears, Hong Kong's skyline shimmered before them like a mirage: "Oh my God! When we saw the lights from afar … those little dots … we were … ah! That's it," she recalled. "Lighting meant life and hope. And it meant we had survived." Their joy was short-lived. They were sent to Green Island, one of Hong Kong's detention camps. "It was a very small place … Men and women were sleeping next to each other. There were no proper bathrooms. I remember we were having showers in an open space, using a blanket or something like that to cover one another," she recalled. Later she was transferred to Whitehead, where she spent most of her eight years in detention. The images of riots, mass demonstrations and other refugees being transferred by truck to other camps or sent back to Vietnam still haunt her. "In Whitehead we were living in constant fear," she said. "I remember looking out in the morning and seeing through the window lots of big vehicles. 'They are coming! They are coming to get us!'" She witnessed two major riots in Whitehead, in 1994 and 1996. "I did not know what tear gas was. I just knew that when [the authorities] shot that into the camp it was very difficult for us to breathe, so we had to wet our towels with orange vinegar." Books and songs became her refuge: "One of my joys was to sing in the camps. I remember singing in front of my fellow detainees … Xuan dang den ben em (Spring is coming to you)," she said, while reproducing the sounds. Under a blanket on her bed, she hid books like How to Stop Worrying and Start Living , as well as English grammar manuals. "I read many books and studied languages: Cantonese, French and English … My friends and I set up a club just to chat in English and we would write words on the floor," she recalled. Her language skills led her to work for international organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres and translating for fellow detainees while she was in detention. Xuan was eventually moved to Pillar Point, an open camp where people had freedom of movement: "I was really impressed with the buildings and the bridges. How modern! In Vietnam I hadn't seen things like that, and after eight years in detention the world outside changed. I was so amazed. It was as if I had been on another planet." With a recognisance paper, which allowed her to work in Hong Kong, she did an array of jobs, including cleaning and working on a construction site, until one day she received an unexpected phone call. It was from the law firm run by the late, pioneering Pam Baker, a champion of Vietnamese refugee rights in Hong Kong. Xuan started off as an interpreter and is now a paralegal with another law firm, Daly & Associates. She holds a diploma in legal studies and a bachelor of law, and is currently taking a master's course in human rights law at the University of Hong Kong. An identity card granted to a client makes her day. Married to a former Vietnamese refugee and mother of two children, the issue that brought her to Hong Kong when she was a little girl is still a taboo to her parents, now living in Vietnam. "Hong Kong is my permanent home, and I am very happy with my current life," she said. But the days in the camps will always be with her: "It gave me a lot of strength and it made me a tougher person. I used to cry a lot when I was younger in the camps … Now, if I am down, I always look back, close my eyes and think: what's worse than tear gas and eight years in detention?"