My Refugee Story

Mai-Linh Huynh: Speech for St. Edmund’s Parish fundraising event (November 13, 2015)

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Ladies and gentlemen, I stand here before you as testimony of what hope can achieve.

I was born a refugee with no place to call home. I was born stateless. For about a year, my family and I lived in a refugee camp, in a shanty tent with a dirt floor on which we slept. We had no money and no material belongings. All that was sustaining us was hope. Hope that there was a better life than the one we left behind in Vietnam.

Tonight, I’ll be sharing a story about a Vietnamese refugee family — my family — and their heroic feats to find a new life, and of a church community from northern SK who reached out to my family and gave us hope for a better life here in Canada.

Let’s go back to the beginning of my family’s story — before the Vietnam war.

My father came from a wealthy Chinese family. His father (my grandfather) was a successful businessman who owned factories for packaging rice and fish sauce. In fact, he was so successful that he had three wives and was able to support each of their families and households. He fathered 16 children (and possibly more!).

My mother on the other hand was a peasant farm girl who had to leave primary school to earn money for her and her family. However, life was sustainable because she worked hard to earn a little money and feed herself and her family.

My parents met, fell in love and married during the war, and started a family soon after. They never really expected that their lives would change much in a communist state, even if they were on the losing side.

But little did they know that being the losers did mean a few things:

First and foremost, the money you earned didn’t belong to you, it belonged to the communist state. Even if you needed it to feed your family.

Secondly, my father was a member of the Hoa — the ethnic Chinese population who controlled much of the retail trade in South Vietnam. The communist government increasingly levied taxes and confiscated businesses owned by the ethnic Chinese.

Times were tough and they became tougher. My grandfather’s packaging factories were seized and my grandfather passed away. The money supporting the family quickly dried up.
My parents made some attempts at making money – they sold car parts, soup, vietnamese desserts, fruit…but soon enough the authorities would find out and seize the businesses and earnings from them.

Hunger started to set in. And my siblings, who then were between the ages of 2 and 3, began to resort to begging for food and eating scraps from restaurant tables.

No one should have to leave their own country through desperation and fear but for many Vietnamese families like mine, there was no better choice. And this meant risking everything: your life, your family’s life, for a chance to live with dignity and free from persecution.

Early in 1979, my family decided to be one of the 800,000 Vietnamese to flee the country by boat.

Today, many Syrians are faced with a similar situation. The UN estimates more than 3 million Syrians have fled to countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and estimates twice as many displaced within Syria. They are risking their lives for freedom, for a better life, just as my family did 35 years ago.

My family couldn’t afford to pay their way out of Vietnam but was granted free passage because my father, having trained in the navy by the Americans during the War, was skilled in steering and navigating a boat. There were approximately 500 refugees stacked on board this vessel.

My mother still gets emotional speaking of the event. She recollects not being able to move because the boat was so overcrowded. She remembers the stench of vomit and of human excrement. She remembers the rough seas and being utterly sea sick and dehydrated. She also had my sister and brother to care for and she was pregnant with me.

Luckily we didn’t encounter pirates or rough storms and 800km later, after a week of sailing, we landed safely on Malaysian shores. And fortunately, We weren’t forced back out to sea like many of the other hundreds of boats before and after us.

It is remarkable what Canadians can achieve when faced with an international humanitarian crisis and the achievements that can be made when collective coordinated actions are taken.

Of all places in the world, a small church community from Pierceland, SK decided to take action and gather the courage to sponsor a Vietnamese family who they never met before, my family, and welcome us into their community. It was this community who gave us the opportunity to live enriching lives as Canadians, to live in a democratic country where multiculturalism is celebrated and valued.

I was born a refugee but now am a proud Canadian. My parents lived in poverty in Vietnam and now they own a thriving restaurant business here in Edmonton. I could have had a future of fear and now I have I am married to a British-Canadian and we have two beautiful children.

I fled a country that disrespected human rights and was stripped of the privilege of having an education and earning a decent living – now I hold a master of science degree in environmental management and am a federal public servant who has been serving Canadians for over 13 years.

All these experiences in my life, everything that I know and love, wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a some remarkable Canadians who wanted to make the world a better place. Tonight, we’re reminded that this world can be a better place for the Syrian family that we’re fundraising for “because of you”.

Thank-you for being the fearless leaders like those who once accepted me. You’re about to embark on a journey of hope that will some day demonstrate the power of the human spirit and I thank you for your commitment to making this happen.

Mai-Linh Huynh is a U of A Alumna and holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Management.

New Year’s Resolutions

I’m not one to make NY resolutions because I’m so perfect (ha!). But now that I’m finished school <spit> I figure I should set some new goals in my life…since I’m on a roll and all.

  1. Blog more. Even if it’s a one liner. Who knows, my kids might think I’m interesting when they get older.
  2. Volunteer. I used to volunteer BK (before kids) and loved giving to back to the community. Sent an application to volunteer with my kids at a care centre near our place. What’s cool is that I used to volunteer at this centre in high school. FULL CIRCLE.
  3. Read a novel/book a month. I was on audiobooks but now with two kids, I really can’t tune out one or the other. I will have to pick up reading after their bedtime.
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Gosh it’s been awhile!

Sorry to all my fans out there (ha, as if I have any!). I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from blogging. It was over a year and half ago since my last post!

Many things have happened since – we celebrated Darwin’s 2nd birthday in February 2014; I was pregnant but suffered a miscarriage at 4 months and gave birth to Mira and mourned her passing in April 2014; we moved out of our downtown condo and back with my parents in summer 2014; took off to southeast Asia for 3.5 months from Nov 2014 to Feb 2015; gave birth to a healthy girl in April 2015.

I’m now on maternity leave for a year – hurray! it’s been a crazy time but really enjoying the moments with my precious daughter Sierra. We named her after the highlands/mountains in Ecuador.

I’ve attached a recent photo of our family and of Sierra at 1 week old. I promise to post more photos as time permits but I’m sure this year will fly as quickly as last year!

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School’s out for…winter?

Wishing it was summer, but unfortunately my school semester starts February and ends October. Finished my one and only final exam today and I feel goooooood. Looking forward to having my evenings and weekends free. Darwin will actually get to have a full weekend with mummy since I’ve been pawning him off to my sister every Saturday for the past two months.

Looking forward to writing more blog posts, there’s so much to catch up on!

La Costa (Dec 19, 2012-Jan 9, 2013)

Beautiful sunsets and hot weather, and you get to work on a nice golden tan. It’s relaxing and the seafood is delicious and cheap. Love the cerviches ($3), they even serve them for breakfast.

The downside : you start to hate the sand: it’s on the bed, in your food, between your teeth, in your ears, under your nails, under your feet… Clothes are always damp. Hair is sticky and matted. And baby and tim get rashes from the heat. The days are rather lazy but it’s what beachlife is all about. You tend to consume beer more often than normal.

Visiting the Galapagos islands was definitely the highlight of our coastal experience…but that will have to be a separate post.

After about 3 weeks traveling coastal Ecuador (12 nights in the Galapagos, 7 nights in Canoa)),  we’re ready to return to the Andes. 

CANOA beach lifeImageImage



Beach life in the Galapagos with marine iguanas

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More on Ecuador, central and northern Andes (Nov 28-Dec 18, 2012)

Spanish. We had a week of lessons in Banos at Mayras spanish school (10hrs per week). We paid 20hrs of one-one lessons for $140, a fairly decent rate considering they were professional and had very good instructors. Our instructor Marco was hilarious, always taking comedy stabs at himself and Banos (mostly degrading of course).

It was an intensive week of study, and by the end we felt fairly confident speaking and understanding Spanish. I was surprised how quickly I was able to pick it up; probably helped from my knowledge of French.

Knowledge of basic spanish is a necessity when traveling Latin America. Perhaps less so in yuccutan Mexico? in Ecuador, even in the tourist areas, most ecuadorians don’t have a second language, and if it is, it’s Quichua (indigenous language). We find that ecuadorians aren’t forgiving either…they speak so quickly!

The Andes. They’re breathtaking. Especially with several active volcanoes dotted throughout the landscape. The majority of communities are agrarian- based and indigenous. After Quito, we headed north to Otavalo and stayed in a hosteria (Rose Cottage) on the outskirts of town.

<Views from Rose Cottage>Image


<Otavalo market>Image

<Hiking the countryside/Andes>Image

<Tilling the land by hand>tillingbyhand

Our experience of the hostel was interesting to say the least. First, it was way too far from Otavalo to walk which I thought would be possible since they advertised it to be a 3 km from the town center. We’re guessing it was about 5km. On most days we were able to hitchhike into town, but on the way back (uphill!), not so lucky. So you basically need some form of transport if you’re staying there. Second, the owner Rosa, is quite insane. She’s rather rude and arrogant. A few examples:

> The first few days she was 15-20 min late opening up for breakfast and wasn’t the least apologetic. She didn’t think it was appropriate for her handyman to allow us into the restaurant even though we had been waiting for her for 20 min in the cold.

> She didn’t want to serve me wine one evening because she was too busy cooking dinner for a family of four.

> She complains about her guests to us in a very unprofessional way.

> She treats her staff like shit.

> The WIFI doesn’t work, even though Rosa was insistent that it did work.

On the positive side, the views of the hosteria were beautiful. She gave us one free night stay (6th night was free). The cottage was decent and included a kitchen (though it got quite chilly at night). And the housekeeper Martha was a sweet lady and did a superb job keeping the place clean and tidy.

Right, so enough of my rant about Rosa of Rose Cottage. Otavalo was a wonderful place to chill; a few nice cafes and a lovely square. They’ve got a handicraft market, fruit & veg market and lots of bakeries. On Saturdays, the handicraft market grows threefold (at least!) and has a large array of textiles, paintings, carvings, souvenirs, etc. we carefully selected our souvenirs since our luggage space is limited. I drove a hard bargain for some things, mostly the embroidered textiles (asking price $140, paid $80). The seller didn’t walk away smiling. I have no shame in bargaining, the trick is to know you have the buying power and should walk away if you’re unsatisfied with the price (some feel obliged to complete the bargaining process). It’s likely that someone else a few yards away is selling something similar.

There’s also an animal market on Saturdays as well. Absolute chaos. Even saw a pig get hauled into the truck of a taxi cab (in full squeal of course). Everyone was carrying a chicken under their arm like an assessory. Sadly Our rough ‘n tough camera got swiped from Tim’s pocket. Sort of ruined our whole experience of the Saturday market. Boo.

We also went on a few hikes when it didn’t rain (the weather was a bit crap the first half of the week). We visited the local waterfalls and hiked to the Condor Park (a full mornings hike in the scorching sun). we also spent a good day in cotacachi town, renown for their leatherwork. It was tiresome after three hours of shopping/browsing but we landed on a few nice leather jackets (red leather jacket for myself, and two for tim). We hate the idea of having to cart them around Ecuador for two months, but they were so worth the purchase. And yes, they are heavy to carry!!

After Otavalo, we headed for Banos (translated as bath, but the common term for toilets). Such a longgggg journey, especially for Darwin. I was tired, tim was tired and baby was so cranky the last hour of the 8 hour journey – otavalo to the north bus terminal (3hrs), taxi to south bus terminal ($13, 45 min), bus to ambato (2hrs), bus to banos (1.5hrs). I really couldn’t blame him for hating us, I promised Myself (and Darwin) that we would have bus journeys no more than five hours in duration.

Banos is a small town situated at the base of tungurahua volcano (active). It’s a fairly small town, you can get from one end of the town to another by foot in 20 minutes. Lots of tourist shops selling crap souvenirs. I did end up buying sugarcane toffee since it is a specialty of the area. Lots of outfitters selling outdoor adventure trips like bungee jumping, rappelling, rock climbing, rafting…etc. we opted not doing any of them since we had baby and frankly it’s too expensive for what you get out of it (I.e. adrenaline rush). We did plenty of hikes and we rented a bike for a morning to check out a few waterfalls. Tim under the influence of some hostal friends, decided to climb Cotopaxi, a volcano at an elevation of 5897m. He said he felt the effects of altitude at the refuge, and had a restless night trying to sleep. They also had to start their hike after midnight to catch the sunrise on the volcano (perhaps the weather is better), and lessen the effects of altitude sickness by descending the volcano as soon as possible. Unfortunately, they had such adverse weather conditions that they weren’t able to summit (tim said it was worse than a canadian storm, with horizontal ice pellets scouring your face and eyes, and icing your gear). I guess it was worth a try. Put him back $180 though, ouch!

Another bonus about Banos is that its cheap- our hostal cost us $16/night, a pint of beer is $1.5, and there are plenty of fresh food markets selling produce at bargain prices. Tim got food poisoning at the mercado. I really should have been the one to get sick since i offered tim my dodgy sausage in place of his chicken wing (knowing he doesnt like dark poultry meat). After a vomit and a days fever, Tim was back to normal. Other than that incident, We enjoyed our time here. On the last day, would you believe, the volcano erupted ash! Thrilling experience but glad it was our last day. All the picturesque scenery of the area was hazed in smoke, and I can’t imagine the air quality being safe for infants either.

We headed from Banos to Ambato, then transferred to Riobamba (quite a hole), and onwards to Alausi. The small rail town offered great scenery, but the hotel we stayed in (pan americana hotel) was a shit hole and never been cleaned. We were so eager to leave the next day to Guayaquil.

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quilotoacraterPhotos of our Quilotoa Crater lake tourImage