Boat people’s flight to freedom remembered

April 26, 2007

Vancouver display will commemorate exodus of Vietnamese

Doug Ward, Vancouver Sun

Published: Thursday, April 19, 2007

One day in 1986, Khanh Vo, a middle-aged nurse and mother, clambered into a boat and fled her native Vietnam.

Her middle-class apartment had been expropriated by the Communist government and she barely earned enough to feed her family, despite her medical skills.

So she joined the wave of refugees that came to be known as the Vietnamese boat people.

Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong cling to a barbed wire fence while waiting in line for food outside a temporary holding area in 1989.View Larger Image View Larger Image

Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong cling to a barbed wire fence while waiting in line for food outside a temporary holding area in 1989.

Reuters, Files

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Her four-day journey to Malaysia was safe and happily uneventful — unlike the horrific experiences of many other Vietnamese refugees who drowned, were killed or raped by pirates, suffered long periods of hunger or languished in squalid refugee camps.

Vo eventually settled in Vancouver, where years later she was joined by the daughter she left behind in Vietnam.

This same daughter, Que-Tran Hoang, now 27, is organizing a display in Vancouver this weekend that commemorates the fall of Saigon to the Communists in April 1975 and the migration of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people to other countries.

“We try to educate younger Vietnamese-Canadians about the Vietnam War,” said Hoang.

“We try to give them their parents’ point of view which is that South Vietnamese forces were fighting the North Vietnamese Communists to protect South Vietnam.”

Many older Vietnamese-Canadians, she added, are concerned that their children and grandchildren have been influenced by other perspectives on the Vietnam War, including the belief of many North Americans that South Vietnamese politicians and soldiers were puppets of the American military that pursued a tragic and unpopular war.

The key event in this weekend’s celebration is the display of the Vietnamese Freedom Boat in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Its purpose is to remind a younger generation of Vietnamese-Canadians of the ordeals endured by many of the so-called boat people, said Hoang.

The Freedom Boat was one of two motorized light fishing boats that left Vietnam on May 12, 1981.

The boats battled high waves for about a week before arriving on a beach in Bataan, Philippines.

Filipino police were shocked by the condition of the refugees, who had been so hungry they had actually eaten most of their clothes.

All of the 50 refugees miraculously survived.

Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos was so moved by their story that he had the smaller boat displayed at a site dedicated to the memory of the boat people called Freedom Plaza in Bataan.

The 10-metre-long boat became known as Freedom Boat. The vessel was recently given by the Filipino government to a Vietnamese cultural group in California, and is now on a tour of the U.S. and Canada.

Between 1975 and 1989, 600,000 Vietnamese “boat people” resettled abroad.

Many of them spent time in refugee camps set up by the United Nations to cope with the humanitarian crisis.

About 145,000 came to Canada, the majority between 1975 and 1984.

Hoang, who is now constituency assistant to Vancouver-Kingsway NDP MLA Adrian Dix, said there are about 27,000 Vietnamese in B.C. — about half of them refugees.

The boat people phenomenon came to a halt in 1989 when the United Nations placed greater restrictions on Vietnamese refugee claims.

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