A true story about Vietnamese exodus and refugees
And the importance of welcoming migrants and refugees today.
After the historic day of the fall of Saigon which Vietnamese communists call “giải phóng” (liberation) on April 30, 1975, just over 40 years ago, Vietnamese people spread in diaspora all over the world to seek a better life free from the communist regime. While this international exodus of Vietnamese people has been well heard of especially in North America and Europe, but prior to this diaspora, the exodus of people was not something foreign to people of Vietnam. The mid-1950s saw northern Vietnamese people moving down to South Vietnam to escape communism and to start their lives, many of them from scratch.
The Fall and the Exodus
My family is no stranger to exodus within and outside Vietnam. My grandparents partook in the 1950s exodus from to North to South Vietnam. They derived from the Kẻ Sặt township in Hải Dương province. People living in this township were deeply rooted in their Catholic faith and to truly live their faith without oppression, a large population of this township also participated in this exodus to build a new Kẻ Sặt community down in South Vietnam. Their expression of faith was so strong to the point that these people brought with them the church bell of the northern Kẻ Sặt Church so to have it installed in their own parish church in south Vietnam where it rung from 1973 until 2014 when they finally installed a new set of bells from Rome, with the old bell preserved as an artifact of their exodus in their “Nhà Truyền Thống” (their parish museum, or literally translated as the “building of tradition”) Yet, my grandparents and the faithful Catholics of Kẻ Sặt were the ones that embarked on this journey. It is said that 85% of the refugees from North to South Vietnam were Catholics (Lindholm, pp. 48–50). While the people of Northern Vietnam saw their exodus as a chance for freedom in light of a Communist conquered northern Vietnam, this dream would only last two decades as all of Vietnam fell into the hands of the Communist with the fall of Sàigòn in 1975.
Reality of Life in Communist Vietnam
Since that day, Vietnamese people living in the country found themselves either living under the communist regime or finding ways to escape the country. While young people like myself, living in Canada may not totally understand why living in communist Vietnam was such a big deal, the more I read about the state of Catholicism during the Vietnam-War and post-“liberation”, I came to realize how restrictive and corruptive life in Communist Vietnam was.
Speaking from the viewpoint of Catholicism in Vietnam, the Church there faced centuries of bloodshed where hundreds of thousands of Catholics with heads held high went to their site of execution to witness to the faith. Today, that rhetoric of martyrdom in the country has taken on a different context. One Vietnamese Catholic figure that has stood out is the now, Venerable Cardinal Francis-Xavier Thuận Văn Nguyễn who was imprisoned for thirteen-years not only because of his identity as a Catholic Bishop and gifted leader, but as made evident in his biography Testimony of Hope, his family affiliation with the Democratic Vietnam regime made him a target and seemingly a threat to Communist Vietnam. A lesser known victim of Communist Vietnam was the late-Archbishop Philip Điền Kim Nguyễn whose sudden death left many questions in light of a newly Communist Vietnam. Throughout this life, and in particular his ministry of Archbishop of Huế, Archbishop Điền was questioned, investigated and oppressed in many ways. He was at a time placed in house arrest, forced to limit his travel to strictly the city of Huế and refused international travel for Ecclesiastical activities. While the persecutions of Catholic clergy seemed to have died down especially in these times, the early 21st Century saw Fr. Thaddeus Lý Văn Nguyễn (who at one time was a close aide to Archbishop Điền) continued to be imprisoned a number of times (Fr. Lý was imprisoned several times in the late 1970s to early 1990s). Ordinations and priestly formation saw rocky times in the years after 1975 in which a number of priests and even bishops were said to be ordained in secret. Seminaries were closed and only recently were a number revived. However, it is worth noting that even with clerical persecution by Communist Vietnam, vocations to the priesthood and religious life in Vietnam are growing each day. For example, the Diocese of Xuân Lộc had 39 new diocesan priests ordained in a single Mass.
Speaking of the citizens living within Vietnam, they too face much oppression. In a seminar course I took at the University of Toronto, Social Justice and the City, in the final paper I wrote titled, The Southern Dividing Line – The poverty rate, issues and solutions for Đồng Nai, Vietnam, I spoke about the lack of care and concern for the impoverished people, specifically those living in the province of Đồng Nai (in south Vietnam). While the post-Vietnam War era seemed to promise a façade full of hope and glory, it was not necessarily so. Đổi Mới is a concept studied by many scholars why studying poverty in Vietnam. While the policies of Đổi Mới opened a future of trading and economic growth, the policies were geared mainly towards the “rich” people. The impoverished, and in particular the ethnic minorities continued to suffer and found it difficult to spring up from their lives of poverty. A big factor of this is pollution. These people rely on natural resources and the Đồng Nai River which was once a great source of fresh water, and fish is now not safe to use due to its state of pollution. Yet, the government is doing nothing about it.
On another aspect, religion was an enemy towards Communism. During the early years of Communism in Vietnam, there was much corruption and bias towards people of religion. My mother never received a college or university education because like many Catholics, she was not accepted by post-secondary education at the time. It is said that either you could bribe these universities or reject your religion and you can be accepted to these universities along with your academic requirements.
The Boat People and Safe Haven
For the reasons above, from poverty, corruption, biases… mere injustices, it is apparent why millions of people chose to flee communism in the 1950s and for many again after the mid-1970s. The Vietnamese people wanted to live in true freedom of religion, expression and ultimately live in a place where they can be able to fully exercise the basic of human rights. A large population, known as the thuyền nhân or in English as the boat people were people who fled Vietnam literally on little fishing boats. Some, like one of my uncles (my mother’s brother) never made it to land. These journeys were often dangerous. People squeezed onto small fishing boats waiting day after day with little to eat and drink. Everything had to be rationed. However, some faced pirates and were sometimes robbed, captured, raped or even killed. These fears of drowning, hunger and pirates roamed through the minds of these boat people until they saw and stepped foot on land. However, their journey was far from over. These refugees stayed on refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia for years. My father and his younger brother were one of these boat people and stayed in the Galang Refugee camp for approximately five years until they were sponsored to come to Canada. However, it was here that my father developed friendships that would last until today. Each Christmas, my father would write Christmas Cards to these once refugee colleague of his now residing in various cities in Canada and the United States to places as far as Holland and Australia. While living at these camps, life was not comfortable, but the people who reached these camps in the 1980s* knew that all this would be temporary and that they (hopefully) one day would find safe haven. For the moment, they relied on each other, on their faith and their Vietnamese roots. As I look through a brittle photo album which my father treasures to this day of photos of the time he spent at Galang refugee camp, I have to say, life was tough but the sense of unity of all the people there from men and women to young children smiling as members of one family were priceless. As the clock ticked, the Catholics there built a small church and it became a central hub of faith, hope and charity as they broke bread together both physically and spiritually and celebrated the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time together along with the traditional Vietnamese festivals such as Tết (Lunar New Year) and Tết Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Festival). My father as well as some refugees in the Galang camp at the time still remember some bold religious figures who came to the camp to counsel and celebrate Mass for people living in these camps such as Fr. Gildo Dominici, S.J. (known by the Vietnamese as Fr. Đỗ Minh Trí). He tirelessly went to minister to these refugees and in a sense, merged into the Vietnamese culture as he lived alongside them.
While the fellowship was there, my dad slowly found himself and his brother “left behind” as his friends went on receiving sponsorships from other countries. However, eventually Canada sponsored them. “It was the first time that the Canadian government applied its new program for private sponsorship of refugees — the only one if its kind in the world — through which more than half of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who came to Canada during this period were admitted.” (Lambert) For my father and his brother and I think for many of the boat people had no idea where they would go. They relied on the hospitality of countries such as that of Canada to admit them in for a new life.
When my father and his brother arrived in Canada, they settled in Peterborough where they received the generous support of a family. The sponsoring of refugees not only involved the openness of the Canadian Government towards these “alien” people, but the kind generous hearts of families. I have heard that in the Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship, people of various religious affiliations came together to offer help for these refugees. Slowly, my father started learning the language, got a College degree from Sir Sanford Fleming College while working a job to support himself and his brother. They later moved to Toronto where there were more opportunities for jobs and education.
Eventually, my father was able to build for himself a stable life and later went back to Vietnam to marry my mother after completing sponsorship application. Today, I am part of a family which I say was built on the sacrifices of not only my father who fled Vietnam on a small fisherman boat, but of so many people from the people who provided physical and spiritual aid on the refugee camp, to the Canadian Government to the generosity of the family who sponsored my father when he first came to Canada.
Continuing the Story
Today, I make these stories of the Vietnamese exodus available here to speak of the importance of welcoming migrants and refugees. These terms are not used to speak of people of the past. Speaking of the Vietnamese people today, many are still trying to find ways to escape the poor conditions. Even poor families would find loans to pay for their children’s escape with the hope that they would be able to go pursue education or a job and so send money back home. The recent revelation of 39 bodies found in the back of a lorry truck in Essex was witness to this – Vietnamese people are still desperate to leave the country to start anew. These are the modern-day Vietnamese Boat People in this 21st century.
The story of migrants of refugees does not only pertain to the Vietnamese people alone. In this century, the story shifts more to those of the Middle East and Africa who are fleeing war and persecution in their respective countries. These people are continuing to write the story of authentic liberation. However, to reach liberation, these persecuted people must go through many risks. The journeys of these people are no different than that of the Vietnamese people nearly 40 years ago. Pope Francis in his homily during his Apostolic Visit to Lampedusa in 2013 said, “Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart.”
Each migrant and refugee has a different story. Every migrant, every refugee comes to a foreign country to start a new life. They never wanted to leave their homeland because it is where they were born, where they grew up, where they are familiar. However, due to political, religious, economic, or environmental circumstances they chose to leave for their own good and the good of their family. The rhetoric of exodus has happened all through history from the time before Jesus, and during the time of Jesus; from 40 years ago and continuing even today. With that in mind, governments, and we too – those living in well developed nations must be hospitable people. We cannot look at the migrants or refugees as strangers, as aliens. We must embrace them as our brothers and sisters. Migrants and refugees are all around us – in the workplace, in the classroom and worship communities… let us give them a hand and be generous to them. We may not know their story, but what we do know, they left their homeland for a brighter future for themselves and future generations of their children and as our brothers and sisters, we must be welcoming to them.
* Not all people who came to refugee camps were guaranteed safe haven. Those who came in the later years, particularly the 1990s faced difficulty of being sponsored by other countries. The communist government desired to repatriate the Vietnamese fleers back to Vietnam. See: Untold Vietnamese Boat People Stories: Vietnam History – a Kyle Le documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbimGI-eCwM
Lambert, M., Canadian Response to the “Boat People” Refugee Crisis (2017). In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-response-to-boat-people-refugee-crisis
Lindholm, Richard (1959). Viet-nam, The First Five Years: An International Symposium. Michigan State University Press.
Pham, J. (2015, April 27). Since the fall of Saigon, church reclaims its foundation. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.globalsistersreport.org/trends/fall-saigon-church-reclaims-its-foundation-24106
Pope Francis, (2013, July 08). Visit to Lampedusa – Holy Mass in the “Arena” sports camp: Francis. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa.html