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Avtar Sandhu this week walked the rocky stretch of beach at Charlesville, N.S., that marked the beginning of a life in Canada, marvelling at a glorious cerulean seascape beneath a matching, cloudless sky.

This was not the view the Toronto tradesman saw when he first set soaking feet on these shores 17 years ago, but he insisted the scene that day was just as sweet.

In the chilly and foggy predawn hours of July 12, 1987, 173 men and one woman waded ashore after being dropped by a Costa Rican freighter sailing from Rotterdam. It was the end of a 19-day journey; a flight from persecution over their Sikh religious beliefs in their homeland of India that grabbed international headlines.

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On Monday, more than 70 of the refugees and their wives and children returned to Charlesville to thank the village, and one man in particular -- Vernon Malone -- for help on that frightening night.

"I can never forget that night. I remember it every single day," said Mr. Sandhu, now 48 years old and a resident of Toronto, where he works in construction as a drywaller. "Vernon's heart is very big. He was a helpful man. We were very scared that day. We were scared on the boat. When we got here, people were so kind to us."

Mr. Sandhu, who organized the reunion with fellow refugee Nirmal Singh Chahal, a 47-year-old factory worker also living in Toronto, thanked Mr. Malone by descending on his white, three-bedroom bungalow with some six dozen of his closest friends and family.

The 67-year-old fisherman welcomed them with much emotion. He bought a slew of air mattresses, bought and borrowed bedding, all to put up as many as 40 in his basement. Neighbours and friends loaned their trailers. Sunday was the beginning of a two-day backyard party in which the Charlesville residents and their Indian guests trade cooking duties and fare -- lobster for curry.

Early on the morning of their arrival 17 years ago in the fishing village outside of Yarmouth, Mr. Malone, who was sleeping deeply after returning from a weeklong lobstering trip, was awakened by the phone with news that was travelling quickly through the community of 100 residents: 174 Indians were walking down the main road. They were exhausted, hungry and thirsty, and one even asked where he could get a taxi to Toronto.

"People in the town were sort of afraid," Mr. Malone recalled.

"No one had ever seen anything like it. I grabbed my video camera and hiked up my pants and ran down through the wet meadow to see them.

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"I figured that someone had to welcome them. These people had no idea where to go or what to do."

Mr. Malone called the Mounties. They ordered him to stay away from the refugees, but he was worried they would be hit by a fishing truck in the dark.

He led them to his son's spacious front lawn and gave them blankets to sit on. He handed out cups of water and peanut butter and jam sandwiches and first-aid supplies to those who had been cut jumping off the boat. At 10 a.m., school buses took the refugees to Canadian Forces Base Halifax, where their immigration processing began.

"Vernon," Mr. Chahal said, his voice choking with emotion, "is like family to me. We wanted to show our families his kindness. I remember every day how he helped me towards having a better life than I had when I landed here.

"There was so much suffering," Mr. Chahal said of his former life in India, although he would not go into details. "I am alive and here now and very grateful for what has happened."

He said that to thank the community in a more permanent fashion, he would offer to perform construction work on the community hall and school free of charge any time in the future.

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"When you're a Nova Scotian, you help everybody who needs it," Mr. Malone said.

"What those people needed that day was for somebody to go and say 'Welcome.' I didn't do anything besides that."

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