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.