Europe’s asylum-seekers come from all walks of life. It was January 1979 when my family began their perilous journey to flee Vietnam.We were the last of the Trinh extended family to go and our situation was getting increasingly desperate.
I was four years old, my sister, two, was suffering from severe dysentery. The Communist government had marked them for “re-education” and they were to be forcibly moved from Saigon to a labour camp in the countryside.
For weeks we waited for a boat to arrive,.. it was a decrepit fishing boat, a bit longer than a yellow school bus and twice as wide. A little more than 300 people crammed onto that boat. “Nose to nose” with one stranger beside you, and “feet to head” with another is how my mother remembers. Sleep was difficult, especially alongside the quiet sobbing of a woman whose child died in her arms.
60,000 refugees from Vietnam came to Canada in the late 70’s after the fall of Saigon.
On the fifth day at sea, we finally saw land, only to have the hope on the horizon dashed by the Malaysian government, its coast guard blaring its unwelcome: The refugee camps are full. Go somewhere else.
Several people had already died during the voyage and that fear held the rest of us hostage. Under cover of night, the captain made the decision to turn the boat back. The plan was to anchor the boat as close to the shoreline as possible, then sink the ship.
“We didn’t know how deep the water was, we just jumped,” my father remembers.
He also recalls dozens of people tearing apart the boat, clinging to scrap pieces of wood or the barrels that held food, anything that could float.
After three months at the camp, a team of Canadian officials arrived to process refugees. They were searching for people who wanted to settle in Canada or had some connection to the country.
My family’s identity papers were lost at sea but there was one document my father had managed to salvage. It was a letter tucked into the lining of a jacket, written by his sister, Esther. It stated that she was a foreign student attending college in Alberta and listed the names of her brother and his family and how she would help provide for us.
That was enough to convince a refugee official we deserved asylum. That would not be enough today for the millions of refugees fleeing Syria.
Unsure of when or if we would arrive, (Aunt Ester) she had left for Taiwan to take up a missionary post. We had lost our guarantor. But our family wasn’t turned away. Instead the government took it upon itself to provide. Immigration workers found us a two-bedroom apartment, helped my father register in a welding course and enrolled my mom in English language courses. I remember someone taking me to the Salvation Army to buy clothes and making sure I walked out with a winter coat.
Not the same today
From my reporting I know that local churches who want to sponsor Syrian refugees have been waiting for more than a year for pre-screened families to arrive.
In my circle of family and friends we have looked into sponsoring a refugee through what’s known as a group of five application. But we were disheartened to learn from the Citizen and Immigration Canada website that it could take between 11 and 54 months to process one application.
A total of 11 of my parents’ siblings were granted refugee status in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. And the children of these families have thrived, becoming doctors, teachers, ministers, engineers, pharmacists, urban designers, stock brokers and journalists.
There isn’t a closet Communist among them.
It took my parents more than seven years to pay the government back for the cost of the flights that first brought us to Canada. They paid it back in increments of $50 a month.
…the government of then prime minister Joe Clark who accepted the 60,000 Vietnamese boat people, my family among them…
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