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From a Leaking Boat to a New Home at Neerlandia CRC--Part 1

Trang Thi and family

My name is Trang Thi Nguyen and this is a true account of my life from the time of my escape from a war-tarnished Vietnam to the life I currently share with my family in Canada.

After the war and the creation of a united Republic of Vietnam in 1975, many in the South feared retribution once it was found out that they had fought the North during the war. The rule exerted in the southern Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) was repressive as it was seen as a bastion of ‘Americanisation’. Traditional freedoms were few. It has been estimated that 65,000 Vietnamese were executed after the end of the war with 1 million being sent to prison/re-education camps where an estimated 165,000 died. My father was one of the many imprisoned for over a decade.

Many took the drastic decision to leave the country – an illegal act under the communist government. As an air flight out of Vietnam was out of the question, many took to makeshift boats or fishing vessels in an effort to flee to start a new life elsewhere. While perfectly safe for near-shore fishing, they were not built for the open waters. This was coupled with the fact that they were chronically overcrowded, thus making any journey into the open seas highly dangerous.

No one can be sure how many people took the decision to flee, nor are there any definitive casualty figures. However, the number who attempted to flee has been put as high as 1.5 million. Death estimates vary from 50,000 to 200,000 (Australian Immigration Ministry). The primary cause of death was drowning though many refugees were attacked by pirates and murdered or sold into slavery and prostitution. Some countries in the region, such as Malaysia, turned the boat people away even if they did manage to land. Many of those who successfully found their way to land ended up settling in the United States and Europe; Canada accepted 137,000 of us.

After two failed attempts to escape by boat, my family and I began our final attempt in a small, overloaded boat on December 27, 1979. On the third night of our journey, our boat sprung a leak and the motor died, leaving us to drift aimlessly at sea with minimal fresh water for eight days, as cargo ships sailing international waters passed by, ignoring our cries for help. Finally, a French cargo ship which had passed us like all the others, later turned around and brought us on board, taking us to a refugee camp in the Philippines, where we were fortunate enough to get on a list of sponsored refugees headed for Canada.

Our family was sponsored by the Neerlandia Christian Reformed Church and arrived in Canada during the summer of 1980. The congregation had a refugee sponsorship program and was very diligent in providing each family with as much care as needed. Mr. and Mrs. Albert Elgersma were our first designated sponsors/caretakers upon our arrival to Canada. The role of a sponsor was to be the primary contact for the refugee family and assist with integrating them into the Canadian culture. The sponsor would ensure that our basic needs were met, help the family members in securing work or enrolling in school and provide general assistance in helping the family acclimatize to the new culture. As I was raised Christian, it was a comfort to be transitioned to a new world with those of the same faith.

The Elgersmas were instrumental in our attempt at a new life in Neerlandia, Alberta. Having not been exposed to any other cultures, the simplest task such as preparing a meal was something that needed to be re-learned. Food preparation, including operating the stovetop, oven and other kitchen appliances without Vietnamese instructions, was a challenge. The story that I have told all our friends and relatives to help depict this challenge is the story of “Hot Dogs”. To preface this tale, one should note that food was always fresh in Vietnam. Every day I would go to the outdoor market and purchase whatever was needed for all meals that day. If food was expected to last longer than a day, it would be salted or pickled accordingly. The concept of a grocery store with refrigerated, frozen or preserved products was foreign to me.

…Stay tuned for the next installation of this 2-part series.

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