Vietnamese Refugees’ Journey to Freedom
By: By Jackie Bong-Wright
Legislation Unanimously Passed
Louisiana Congressman Joseph Cao’s first piece of legislation, designating May 2, 2009 as “Vietnamese Refugees Day,” was passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives with 67 co-sponsors. Senator Jim Webb was likewise successful in the U.S. Senate. In Richmond, the General Assembly passed a similar bill, introduced by Delegates Bob Hull and Adam Ebbin.
Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, over 2,000,000 refugees and Boat People have left Vietnam. Around 1.5 million have resettled in the U.S., 72 percent of whom are now naturalized U.S. citizens, the highest rate among all Asian-American groups, according to Wikipedia.
During APA Heritage month, on May 2, the Asian Division of the Library of Congress (LOC), Boat People SOS, the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans, and the Voice of Vietnamese Americans sponsored a symposium, “Journey to Freedom: A Boat People Retrospective” at the Library of Congress. This was to document the Vietnamese refugees’ harrowing experiences and their subsequent achievements, and to honor the host countries that welcomed them.
“By doing so,” said Cong. Cao, “we enshrine in the hearts and consciousness of Americans the tragic, heroic and uplifting stories of perseverance and the pursuit of freedom of millions of Vietnamese refugees to ensure these stories will stand as an inspiration to generations of Americans to come.”
Peter Young, Chief of the Library’s Asian Division, declared, “The Symposium offered each of us an opportunity to share, to learn, and to celebrate the extraordinary pilgrimage of those who came to America from Vietnam.” Dr. James Billington, 13th Librarian of Congress, thought the Library was the right venue for the Symposium. “This place has a destiny to be a living encyclopedia of democracy, not just a mausoleum of culture, but a catalyst for civilization.”
Reme Trefalga, Program Chair of this project at LOC, announced, “By telling your stories – as difficult as it may have been – you’ve taken the first step in letting go of all your hoardings: your resentments, your plugged up tears, the images that haunt you. Let go. It is now the only freedom: let go and live your life free of baggage.”
At the Symposium, Kim Ha, a land refugee from California, told her story. “The physical and mental ordeal the Northern Communists imposed on the South Vietnamese, considered as the lackeys of the imperialist Americans, caused her and her family to try to escape by boat in June 1978. They were arrested and put in jail. After their release, she and her husband were dismissed from their jobs and became street vendors.
Two years later, with four children aged 4 to 9, and five months pregnant, she fled again, this time by land, crossing Cambodia to reach Thailand on foot. Abandoned four times by their guides, they were robbed and arrested twice in the jungle by Cambodian police. They witnessed people being killed by land mines and by soldiers, and saw women gang raped, left to die.
During their traumatic escape, they used all kinds of transportation - bus, bicycle, motorcycle, train, and ox carts. At night, they kept moving, sometimes running for their lives in the dark. “We suffered from hunger and thirst, and were reduced to being beggars,” she recounted, choking.
Exhausted, she gave birth to a baby girl in a camp near the Thai border. She had no clothes for the baby, nor water to bathe her, not even milk to feed her. Armed only with prayers and faith in God, she said, they finally made it to Thailand, then to “heaven” in the U.S.
Well settled now with a secure job for the past 29 years, she wanted to tell her own story and that of the 10,000 “land refugees.” She did this in six books, which she published herself in both English and Vietnamese. “It’s my legacy for the younger generations. They need to understand how much people endured and how they survived. It was ‘freedom or die’.”
When it was the turn of Minh Nguyen to tell his story, tears ran down his face. He had suffered the same fate as Kim Ha, but at the age of 9. He had to run for his life when his whole family was imprisoned while celebrating a memorial service commemorating the death anniversary of his great grandfather.
Minh walked to Cambodia, was deported back to Vietnam, then walked to Cambodia a second time. When he finally reached Thailand, he was put in jail in Bangkok. Deported back to Vietnam, he was sent to an “economic zone,” a wild, vast forest with nothing but trees and snakes.
Minh survived! By a miracle, he was able to go to the U.S. and ended up working in a hotel in Washington, DC. Now in his thirties, his only wish is to become a citizen and start a family.
Thousands of similar stories could be recounted. Each refugee has his or her own tale of hardship and success.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 250,000 Vietnamese Boat People died at sea as a result of storms, illness, and starvation as well as kidnappings and killings by pirates. The number of land refugees who perished is unknown.
Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong were the first countries to open refugee camps for the 840,000 land and boat refugees who arrived from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam from the 1970s to the 1990s. The UNHCR sponsored these refugees in Asian camps for years before they were either resettled around the world or deported back to Vietnam when no country would accept them.
Achievements and Contributions
Cong. Cao wrote in his resolution, “They (the refugees) significantly contributed to the cultural and economic prosperity of the U.S. as artists, scientists, astronauts, restaurateurs, Olympians, professors and lawyers.” Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich, Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang and Genie Ngoc Giao, who co-sponsored the symposium and selected the speakers, couldn’t agree more, “Besides their achievements, these former refugees gave back to the community much more than they had received.”
Sister Christine My Hanh, one of the refugees, devoted 13 years of her life to assisting other refugees. She left Vietnam with 167 handicapped children and found a new home for them with the Benedictine nuns at Mt Angel in Oregon. Six months later, she was assigned to Hong Kong, and worked tirelessly to help thousands of boat people in refugee camps there. With a $200 donation, she even opened a restaurant inside the camp to help the refugees have work and become self-reliant.
She said, “Journeying with the refugees in Hong Kong was filled with much joy and also sorrow, but my sweat and tears were not in vain. I lit a little light of hope in the deep night for thousands of my people, who suffered so much in search of freedom.”
Others in the U.S., such as Dr. Nguyen Huu Xuong, Professor of Physics, Biology, and Chemistry at UC, San Diego, contributed in a different way. Seeing the dreadful tragedy of boat people being raped and killed at sea, he and a friend co-founded the Boat People SOS Committee in 1980 in San Diego. They expedited the immigration of hundreds of boat refugees to the U.S. and also prevented thousands of children without guardians from being sent back to Vietnam.
After five years of hard work, they collaborated with Medecins du Monde of France, Cap Anamur from Germany, and philanthropist Andre Gille from Monaco to rescue thousands of boat refugees at sea, then helped resettle them in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. Later, the Committee was transferred to Washington DC under the leadership of Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, who expanded their work with social and humanitarian services for thousands of Vietnamese immigrants.
Another humanitarian, Prof. Le Xuan Khoa, focused his work on advocacy at the South East Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC). His organization lobbied Congress to adopt the Indochinese Refugee Assistance and Protection Act of 1987. He organized a conference on the first asylum crisis in 1988 that laid the groundwork for the International Conference on Indochinese refugees in Geneva a year later.
SEARAC’s consultations with both U.S. and Vietnamese negotiators on the issue of Vietnamese political prisoners resulted in a US-Vietnam agreement in 1989 and the former prisoners’ resettlement in the U.S. The organization’s principal success was the training on leadership and capacity building that facilitated the formation of three national umbrellas for refugee organizations: Cambodian Network Council, Hmong National Development, and National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies.
Dr. Ta Van Tai, attorney and retired research fellow and lecturer at Harvard Law School, said it best, “The saga of the Vietnamese refugees in the last half of the 20th century is not one of tragedy only, but of triumph also. They have gone through the brutalities and horrors of war, the harrowing misery of persecution and escape, but they have finally succeeded in recreating a new life for themselves.”
He continued, “Even the regime that in older days contemptuously and unfairly referred to them as the pimps, the prostitutes and the defeated soldiers of South Vietnam now call them the dear blood brothers and sisters thousands of miles away. They have met the challenge of their wretched condition as refugees and responded triumphantly, in accordance with the pattern of challenge and successful response described by the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee for the great peoples in history.”
Dr. Tai concluded, “The Vietnamese refugees’ retrospective has redressed the balance from the common image of the boat people as tired, hungry, half-naked people drifting in from rickety boats to the shores of Southeast Asia with nothing but miserable stories to tell. This image has changed into an objective and balanced picture of a resilient people going through a heroic exodus and then being capable of charting for themselves a new life and a new position under the sun in their new countries.”