The story they are watching unfold is one they know all too well.
Before millions of Syrians fled their country, the South Vietnamese journeyed in overburdened vessels teeming with humanity. Many came to North America and settled in several Canadian cities, including Calgary and Edmonton, where they were sponsored and encouraged to begin a new life.
More than 30 years later, Vietnamese Canadians are reaching out to Syrian refugees and offering what they need most – hope and a country to call home.
“We know [the Syrians] are more than refugees to Canada,” said Quang Trinh, chair of the Calgary Vietnamese Youth Association (CVYA). “They are nation-building people, and when you think of it that way, it’s easy to extend a hand.”
Members of the CVYA have discussed how they can assist Syrians who have risked their lives trying to escape a most uncivil war. There have been cross-country discussions involving Calgary and Ottawa and Toronto’s Lifeline Syria, a program raising money to resettle as many Syrians as possible.
The youth association knows what it is dealing with – most of its members were born to refugee parents or grew up in Canada after their parents immigrated here. Anne-Marie Pham co-founded the organization in 2003 to help newcomers assimilate. As a child, she left Saigon with her family to spend time in France before settling in Canada.
That story, and others like it, has made this Syrian relief effort compelling and personal. Just this week, the CVYA said it would match the 300 refugees sponsored by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
“We want to provide a strong foundation, a sense of belonging,” Ms. Pham said. “Our parents have a great appreciation for Canada because they were welcomed here. We want to pay it forward.”
What Canada should do about the Syrian refugee crisis has turned into a hot-button issue in the federal election campaign. The Conservatives and leader Stephen Harper have stated they would accelerate the current process to take in 10,000 by September, 2016. (The Globe and Mail has reported that the Prime Minister’s Office told immigration officials to stop processing one of the most vulnerable classes of Syrian refugees this spring and declared that all UN-referred refugees would require approval from the Prime Minister.) Then, during the campaign, the Tories promised to take in an additional 10,000 if re-elected. NDP leader Tom Mulcair has said he would bring in 10,000 refugees by the end of this year. Not to be outdone, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals vowed they would bring in 25,000 immediately.
Critics wanted to put the brakes on over concerns about too many people coming in too quickly and how their arrival might allow a terrorist threat to walk in among them.
Mr. Trudeau dismissed those worries in the Sept. 28 leader’s debate when he said: “Multiculturalism … has made Canada a strong country, not in spite of its diversity, but because of diversity.”
South Vietnamese began fleeing their country as U.S. troops withdrew from the war against North Vietnam’s communist forces. It was the 1975 fall of Saigon that symbolized the North Vietnamese victory and sent people scrambling to escape by boat. Of those who survived the ocean voyage, 8,000 were allowed into Alberta between 1975 to 1985. During that time, Canada took in 100,000.
Calgary’s Vietnamese leaders want to promote those who have benefited from the choices available to them, from university scholarships and grants to full-time employment.
Hieu Ngo arrived in Calgary when he was 18 and eager to fit in. He went to school by day and cleaned office buildings in the downtown core by night. He is now an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s social work department and describes himself as “an emerging scholar.” He has worked with service partners, such as the Calgary Police, who wanted to learn more about the youth gangs made up of Canadians, Asians and the Vietnamese who made up FOB, the Fresh Off the Boat gang.
The police had little to no idea how gangs operated. They now have a guns-and-gangs unit.
Dr. Ngo‘s research on “an identity-based community approach to support vulnerable youth in Canada” noted that immigrants are more likely to become involved in gangs the longer they stay in Canada. His next goal is to “bring attention of the public to the accomplishments and contributions of people with refugee backgrounds to Canada.”
Judy Luu has had her share of accomplishments, and is sure to have more. Her mother and father were Vietnamese refugees, and she was born during a stop-over in Indonesia. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Calgary with her parents and two brothers. Determined to make the best of things in Calgary, she financed university with scholarships and student loans. She completed her MD and PhD in five years. Usually, it takes nine. Dr. Luu currently works at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital.
“I think more focus [should be put on] promoting cultural community groups, more affordable after-school activities and volunteerism,” Dr. Luu said. “These are the things that kept me busy and inspired me to make a difference.”