New Orleans’ Vietnamese draw strength from past

March 16, 2006

New Orleans’ Vietnamese draw strength from past

Firecrackers explode during a church festival celebrating the Vietnamese lunar new year in New Orleans

Hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans in one flood-ravaged part of New Orleans are busy rebuilding their once-thriving community and rallying around the church for Tet holidays, while parts of the district remain desolate.

Every year, parishioners at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church gather to celebrate traditional Tet (lunar New Year) with fireworks, dragon dances and music.

This weekend’s festival, the first since Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, has more significance than ever following the floods that killed more than 1,300 people and displaced two-thirds of the city’s population.

“Psychologically, it acts as a stabilizer,” said Mary Queen of Vietnam’s pastor, Rev. Vien T. Nguyen.

“Every mark that we set has some symbolism to it, to show people that it is business as usual, that we are home and we are continuing.”

About 1,000 of the church’s 6,300 parishioners have returned to Versailles, an eastern New Orleans neighborhood carved out of swampland, Nguyen said.

A further 2,000 or so come in on weekends to work on flood-damaged houses and to help restart the businesses that serve the tight-knit community. Few residents or businesses have returned to other parts of eastern New Orleans.

Meanwhile, city officials have suggested that certain areas cannot be rebuilt unless enough evacuated residents demonstrate an intent to return.

A strong community

Kimberly Nguyen, who was busy preparing vermicelli, shrimp and herb-stuffed spring rolls for sale at one of the festival’s food booths, said she was happy to be home after evacuating to Lafayette, Louisiana, even though the early days were difficult.

“When I came here we didn’t have lights or water,” said Nguyen, who is not related to the pastor. “But we survived. And we made it back.”

Before Katrina, New Orleans and its suburbs were home to an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese immigrants and their US-born children.

The first wave of Vietnamese arrived in 1975, many at the invitation of the Roman Catholic archdiocese. About two-thirds of those who settled in the region are Catholic, with Buddhists and ancestral worshipers making up the rest, Rev. Nguyen said.

Many in Versailles can trace their roots to three North Vietnamese clans who fled to South Vietnam during the war with the US before relocating to eastern New Orleans.

That shared history has been key to the neighborhood’s resurgence, Nguyen said.

“Not only just by being neighbors, but also by being clans, being all family, we are obligated to lend each other a hand,” he said.

Most homes in the area took on between 5 inches and 1 foot of water – substantially less than harder-hit sections of eastern New Orleans – when breached levees inundated 80 percent of the city.

The church and an adjacent school served as a refuge for the 400 neighborhood residents who rode out the storm, Nguyen said. When evacuees began returning in early October, the parish used church property as a distribution center for food and emergency supplies.

“The factor that plays into the tightness of this community is that these people have migrated several times in their life, first from North to South Vietnam,” Nguyen said.

“People who are 60 and older, they know each other’s families, each other’s ancestors and relatives.”

Source: Reuters

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