Escape in rickety ships
BY ERIK OLSEN
At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, some 1.5 million South Vietnamese refugees took to the sea to escape from their country’s communist regime; they are referred to as Boatpeople. There are no precise casualty figures, but the Australian Immigration Ministry has estimated that between 50,000 to 200,000 of these people perished at sea.
“After 1975, the communists took over Vietnam,” said Jo Le, a dentist living in Irvine, Cal. “We didn’t have freedom at all. So we risked our lives on a small fishing boat.” She added that she and other escapees “did not care” whether the vessel was seaworthy or what. According to Dr. Le, each paid the boatman (?) about four ounces of gold for the journey. “The worst case scenario would have been to die at sea.”
“Our boat held forty-some adults and children. After four days at sea, with deadly storms at night… the boat was leaking, and fuel almost ran out by the time we reached Malaysia. We were very lucky,” Mrs. Le said. “Later on, however, I became terrified when I heard tragic stories of other boatpeople who did not make it to shore. Death is one thing, but … cannibalism…. is something that happens only in novels, not to the people of a country such as Vietnam in 1975.”
Carrying little food, and wearing only the clothes they had escaped with, these boatpeople would float around the sea for three to four days at a time before they were able to catch sight of allied ships carrying rescuers from America, Germany, and France.
“These ships recognized us, and when they found out that we were war refugees, they notified authorities and they began to allow the commercial vessels to rescue us,” Mrs. Le said. “They would give us food, or fuel, or just get us to the ship, and then they would transfer us to Thailand, or the Philippines, or Hong Kong, so that we could have a safe place. Then, we got to come to America and Europe from there.”
Ai Tran who came fled by boat as a young child with his father and mother said of his parents, “They left all their loved ones behind. It must have been hard for them to do this. Today, I don’t remember much about my relatives. I don’t have many memories of my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, or my cousins. I sometimes wish I knew them better, but I am also grateful to have a better life in America.” Tran was gone for eight years before he saw his relatives again.
It is estimated that 823,000 Vietnamese refugees were brought to America, while 19,000 others were taken to Britain, 96,000 to France, and 40,000 to West Germany. Australia and Canada each accepted 137,000 refugees.
Orange County, California, is home to one of the two largest Vietnamese communities in the United States. Since 1975, following the fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands of boat people were brought to live in temporary housing at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. “Because of the convenience and also because of the nice weather, most of the Vietnamese refugees chose Orange County to resettle in permanently,” said Quy Ly, another dentist who is Jo Le’s husband. “Most of the boatpeople have relatives living in Orange County, so this location has become a prevalent destination for them.”
According to the Lys, Boatpeople currently residing in Orange County are treated with great respect and compassion, and are often seen as heroes, because they were bold enough to risk their lives in order to gain freedom. Mr. Ly compared the boatpeople’s standing in the local Vietnamese community with that of Holocaust survivors among Jewish residents.
“They started from scratch and built up their new lives with enormous effort,” Mr. Ly said. “There has been no discrimination, whatsoever, between the boatpeople and other Vietnamese living in Orange County.” Still, despite the definite improvement in their surroundings, the boatpeople dealt with a different kind of adversity when first arriving in America.
Au Tran recalls challenges that he and his parents faced both in “rebuilding our family and trying to achieve the American dream. My family was very poor and relied a lot on social welfare programs to get by,” Tran said. “My parents did what they could to provide us with the necessities we needed to get by. I never had anything like allowances, birthday parties, or the toys other kids had. My parents stressed education while we were growing up and, thanks to that, we are in a more comfortable [economic] situation than we were twenty years ago.”
As they became integrated within the local community, and experienced greater success, many former boatpeople have managed to achieve high positions in the realm of public service within their communities. As a child, Janet Nguyen, along with her family, escaped in a 10-meter wooden boat, and experienced life in multiple refugee camps. Now, she serves as the Chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
Lan Quoc Nguyen fled from Vietnam at the age of fifteen, and is now an attorney at law, and president of the Board of the Garden Grove Unified School District. Andy Quach successfully escaped from Vietnam in 1980, settling in America after spending some time in Indonesia. He now serves on the Westminster City Council. The influence of the boatpeople is not limited to public service. “A great deal of them have become physicians, pharmacists, lawyers, and successful businessmen,” Mr. Ly said.
“Some of the refugees have had a tremendous impact in the electronics industry, such as Dr. David Lam, founder of Lam Research,” said Di Ton That, a computer scientist. “All of the semiconductor companies are using Lam’s equipment. Similarly, Sigma Design, founded by refugee Thinh Tran, makes chips for HDTV, Blu-Ray DVD, etcetera.”
Whether in business, medicine, technology, or public service, the boatpeople’s impact on America is matched by their adoptive country’s impact on them. And they continue to show their appreciation. As Mrs. Le said, “I would like to contribute something back to… this great nation of America, which nurtures and gives me opportunities to succeed in life.”