New Canadian Media

Land of Hope and Freedom: Vietnamese Canadians Remember Arrival After 40 Years

Written by  New Canadian Media Monday, 25 May 2015 13:03
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Haquyen Nguyen beside the Vietnamese Memorial Plaque on Somerset Street in Ottawa.
Haquyen Nguyen beside the Vietnamese Memorial Plaque on Somerset Street in Ottawa. Photo Credit: Susan Korah

By Susan Korah (@waterlilypool) in Ottawa

Haquyen Nguyen remembers that fateful moment 40 years ago as if it happened yesterday. As a teenager in South Vietnam, she sat with her family around the radio when president Duong Van Minh dropped the news bomb that shattered her life and dreams, as well as those of millions of her compatriots. 

Saigon had fallen to the communists, and South Vietnam had surrendered. This was the end of their relatively peaceful and family-centred lives.

“My mother cried,” says Nguyen, her own eyes misting with tears as she recalls that moment today.

Four years later, halfway across the world in Ottawa, another young woman watched the news.

The young woman was Marion Dewar, a public health nurse who had recently been elected mayor of Ottawa. Scenes of chaos and misery flashed across the TV screen, as hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who had opposed the communists fled for their lives, jammed into tiny and often unsafe boats.

Weary and exhausted after a harrowing journey through treacherous waters, the refugees found a warm welcome in a cold northern city that most of them knew nothing about.

One such person was Nguyen’s husband, Phuong Lethebinh.

“For days, my father and the others battled against the heat of the sun, dehydration and starvation,” says Quoc-Viet-Le The, Nguyen’s son, describing his father’s escape by boat.

As Dewar watched these scenes in horror, her legendary sense of social justice came to the forefront. “Her immediate thought was, ‘What can we do to help these people?’” says her son Paul Dewar, MP for Ottawa Centre and Official Opposition Critic for Foreign Affairs. Driven by her faith and her desire to be an “instrument of peace,” she devised a plan of action.

'We’ll Take Them'

This was the birth of Project 4000, a plan that linked Southeast Asian refugees with Ottawa residents who stepped forward to sponsor and support them. Weary and exhausted after a harrowing journey through treacherous waters, the refugees found a warm welcome in a cold northern city that most of them knew nothing about.

To get Project 4000 off the ground, Dewar met with the city’s religious leaders and an immigration official. The latter informed her that Canada had a quota of 8000 Southeast Asian refugees for that year (1979) and that 4000 were already processed.

“We’ll take them [the 4000],” she promised on a wing and a prayer. Her idea was that organized groups such as churches, service clubs and community associations would sponsor refugee families.

“These people opened their hearts and arms to us,” says Haquyen Nguyen, tears of gratitude brimming in her eyes. “They knew nothing about us, but were ready to welcome [us] as Canadians.”

At city hall, council voted unanimously to support the mayor’s project, paving the way for an inspirational rally at Exhibition Hall in Lansdowne Park.

Writer Sue Pike and her husband George were among the volunteers who helped to organize the rally, and ended up sponsoring a young Vietnamese family with two children, a boy and a girl. A third child was born after the family settled in Canada.

Another young Ottawa couple, Barbara Gamble and her husband Dan, were on vacation when they heard of Mayor Dewar’s appeal to help the refugees. Having worked on the mayor’s election campaign, Gamble knew Dewar personally and gave her a call. Dewar invited her to come home and help organize the rally. They too became sponsors.

After the rally, complete strangers and businesses organized smaller meetings to raise funds (about $10,000 a year for a family) and organize the logistics of relocating thousands of people to Ottawa.

“These people opened their hearts and arms to us,” says Haquyen Nguyen, tears of gratitude brimming in her eyes. “They knew nothing about us, but were ready to welcome [us] as Canadians.”

The sponsors’ investment of money and goodwill paid off. Not only did they earn the sincere gratitude of thousands of boat people and their families, but also enriched the city of Ottawa culturally and professionally.

Today, many of these original refugees and their descendants are the proud owners of  thriving businesses and are contributing their talents and expertise to Canada as doctors, scientists, engineers and artists.

Expressing Gratitude and Commemorating the Past

“Every year we hold a commemoration on April 30, the date when Saigon fell,” says Nguyen. “But this year is very special because it’s the 40th anniversary. We are also celebrating the passage of the Journey to Freedom Day Act.”

In 1986, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to “the People of Canada.” “This was the only time the Nansen Refugee Award has been awarded to an entire nation,” says Mike Molloy, president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and former Foreign Affairs officer.

She is referring to Bill S-219, which commemorates the mass exodus from South Vietnam and recognizes the fundamental role that Canadians played in rescuing and welcoming thousands of refugees after the Vietnam War. The bill was sponsored by Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, himself a refugee from those nightmarish days following the fall of Saigon.

The Vietnamese community expressed its gratitude to the people of Ottawa at two special events this year. One was a ceremony at the Marion Dewar Plaza in front of city hall on April 30, when community leaders formally thanked and honoured the late Marion Dewar and the people of Ottawa. Haquyen Nguyen presented a commemorative plaque to MP Paul Dewar, recognizing his late mother’s vision and compassion.

The other was at a reunion and “thank you, Canada” dinner on May 23 hosted by the Ottawa Vietnamese Canadian Cultural Organization at the Ron Kolbus Lakeside Centre. It was an occasion that brought together many of the original refugees and sponsors.

The exemplary humanitarian actions of thousands of ordinary Canadians 40 years ago not only gave new lives and hope to refugees from the Southeast Asian conflict, but also brought unprecedented international recognition to Canada.

In 1986, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to “the People of Canada.”

“This was the only time the Nansen Refugee Award has been awarded to an entire nation,” says Mike Molloy, president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and former Foreign Affairs officer who coordinated the movement of 60,000 Indochinese refugees to Canada in 1979-80. He explains that this award is usually given to individuals or organizations in recognition of outstanding service to refugees or displaced people.

Would programs like Project 4000 be possible today? “It’s possible, but the current government lacks the political will to undertake them,” says Paul Dewar.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

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