Thirty-three years ago today, the Fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War. A new regime is in place. America has returned. More than 3 million overseas Vietnamese are scattered around the world. While many Vietnamese have moved on -- built lives in new countries, learned new languages, started families -- vestiges of the war still remain for a few hundred Vietnamese in the Philippines. These stateless refugees, the last of the "boat people," have been in limbo for more than a decade.
From my Little Saigon post,
"About half a million Vietnamese fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Vietnamese boat people had to escape communist authorities and raise money to buy passage on rickety boats where they dealt with starvation, Thai pirates who raped, robbed and killed, and hostile locals when they flooded other Southeast Asian countries. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in 1981 in Thai waters alone, there were 1,149 attacks on 352 boats; 571 people were killed, 243 abducted, and 599 raped by pirates. Read about their experiences. The refugees were placed in camps and processed to determine whether they were actually fleeing persecution or were economic migrants. Not all the refugees came to America, other popular countries included Australia, Canada, and France. But Vietnamese were scattered everywhere with some ending up in Israel, Finland, and Argentina. Read about the "forgotten ones" who weren't eligible for resettlement."After more than a decade of dealing with waves upon waves of Vietnamese boat people still fleeing their country, the Steering Committee of the International Conference of Indo-Chinese Refugees formed the Comprehensive Plan of Action in June 1989 in order to resolve the crisis. From then on, the boat people were considered asylum seekers, proving you deserved refugee status became much more difficult. Those who determined not to be refugees, and thus unable to go to another country and unwilling to return to Vietnam, ended up in limbo for years.
The CPA program ended in 1996, and Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines began shutting down the refugee camps and forcibly repatriating the refugees back to Vietnam. Some camps tear-gassed, beat, and chained the refugees in order to get them to comply. Some refugees committed self-immolation or suicide in protest, rather than return to Vietnam.
Protests were held in Vietnamese communities around the world, most notably in Little Saigon. The refugee camps were shut down anyway. The Philippine government sent one planeload of refugees back to Vietnam but stopped because of protests and concerns that repatriation was not humanitarian. Instead, with $1 million USD in donations from overseas Vietnamese and with the help of the Catholic Church-based Center for Assistance to Displaced Persons, 13 hectares were set aside in Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan to build a "Viet Village" for about 2,500 Vietnamese.
While the Vietnamese were allowed to remain in the Philippines, they were not allowed citizenship or employment. They scraped by a meager existence working low-end jobs and selling trinkets on the streets. You can view some pictures their stateless existence online at "The Forgotten Ones" and the rest of the images in Brian Doan's book.
Bolinao 52, a documentary by Duc Nguyen, is about one boat that started out in May 1988 with 110 people. The engine died, ignored by passing ships, and refused help by a US Navy ship, they resorted to cannibalism to survive. After 37 days at sea, 52 survived. Visit the Bolinao 52 blog to read about his next documentary, "Stateless."
In 2005, thanks to seven years of lobbying by Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Hoi Trinh, America, Australia, and Canada agreed to resettle these last refugees of the Vietnam War. You can read more about Trinh's story at the end of the chapter on Viet Kieu in "Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns," by David Lamb. The book was published in 2002, the section concerning Trinh is brief but important in understanding his role in resettling the last of the boat people. An Australian documentary by Dai Le called "In Limbo," also has more information on Trinh and his efforts.
Trinh gave up a promising career in Australia for a bare-bones subsistence in the Philippines. His efforts were aided by other volunteers in Australia and America. He managed to settle one or a handful of refugees at a time. Until finally in 2005, Trinh's earnest doggedness paid off and the U.S. decided to revisit the issue. Trinh was one of the founders of VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment), an organization that works to combat trafficking of women and children, and to resettle the last of the refugees.
There are now about 160 refugees left.
Which brings me to my friend Don. I've mentioned him before when he stopped by on New Year's Day for a dumplings and noodles lunch at Tasty in San Gabriel, or when he stopped by for some Meyer lemon bars, or when he stopped by for a venison fest. Since February, Don has been in the Philippines, volunteering with VOICE to resettle these last refugees. You can read about his experience on Don's blog.
Don was born in America. His parents left in 1975 so they weren't boat people. But this issue affects so many Vietnamese, that as a kid, he volunteered with his mom in walk-a-thons to raise the funds needed in 1996 to create the Viet Village in the Philippines. Needless to say, I am just so very proud of my friend.
Before he left, Don invited me and a few of his high school and college friends to his house for dinner. I got a little tour of his parents' garden before we ate. It was pitch-dark so I just pointed my camera at random. I'm not sure what kind of tree this was, but it was reminiscent of the plum blossoms that are popular during Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year).
Miniature orange tree? Tangerines?
Buddha's fingers, or the hand of Buddha. It's a citrus fruit that's more rind and pith than anything else. I've seen it infused in vodka, but beyond that, thought it was merely decorative. Don says his grandmother uses it to flavor soup.
Dinner was the most fabulous pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup). Don's mom made a huge vat with a broth that she had simmered for 14 hours. Now, I know there are cookbooks that say you only need to cook the broth for three hours because all the flavor that's going to be extracted from the bones is done by then. Well, those cookbooks are just plain wrong.
Don't believe me? It's simple enough to check for yourself. Next time you make pho bo, ladle out a bowlful after the three-hour mark. Do it again at the 14 hour mark. Taste the difference in each bowl for yourself.
I was in heaven. I ate a huge bowl. For once, I wished I had a bigger stomach so I could eat a second bowl. Don's mom even offered to send me home with some. I shouldn't have been polite and said, "Yes!" :P
I didn't want my story to detract from Don's story or that of the refugees in the Philippines. But really, there are so very many of us.
My family escaped during the Chinese exodus of Vietnam. I'm a 79-er by way of Hong Kong. Four nights and three days at sea. Eleven months in the refugee camp.
Dear readers, were any of you boat people too? If you've ever wondered about the significance of numbers in pho restaurants, this is one reason why. The other popular number, 54, is because when Vietnam was divided in 1954, 1 million Vietnamese fled from North to South.
1 year ago today, after a cold frost, everything's growing again in my garden -- Lady Fairbanks roses blooming over a trellis, strawberries ripening in the side herb garden, and wildflowers popping up at random.