City Scene

Refugees who don’t feel like it anymore

Ann Finlayson April 7 1980
City Scene

Refugees who don’t feel like it anymore

Ann Finlayson April 7 1980

Refugees who don’t feel like it anymore

City Scene

Ann Finlayson

Som Saysanasy, his wife, You, and their eight children are survivors. Unwitting victims of political and social upheavals which they can only just comprehend, they have found a safe haven in Canada from a simple life turned nightmare. The worst may be over, but the story isn’t finished.

The Saysanasys, both 43, are ChineseLaotians who fled Vientiane, Laos’ capital city, across the Mekong River in an unsafe boat to a filthy, overcrowded, pestilent refugee camp in Thailand. They fled in late 1977, not out of political conviction but because they were starving. For two years, at Nong Khai, a United Nations High Commission camp harboring 40,000 souls along the LaosThailand border, they again endured hunger and skin rashes, water that made them sick and the ever-abiding presence of death. As Som says, “Life was very bad there. No hope, no hope.” Today, Som and his family are among an estimated 5,000 Southeast Asian refugees in the Toronto area. Hope for them came last September when, after an interview with Canadian Immigration officials, they were flown to Bangkok with nothing but the light clothing on their backs—the few possessions and the bit of money brought from home had been stolen in the camp or “given” to guards—and then, three weeks later, to Montreal where they received warm clothing and medical examinations. A

day later they were in Toronto where their sponsors, the Toronto Mennonite United Church, had arranged, through private donation, a four-room flat near Bloor and Bathurst, more clothing, makeshift furnishings and 20 handmade Mennonite quilts. Plans had been made for the two eldest children, daughters Somsamy, 20, and Bouakham, 18, to live separately. But Som and You, politely but firmly, said no: above all the family should remain together. In two days the five youngest children, Sichanh, 15, Sisouck, 13, Bouadeng, 10, Siphanh, 8, and Siluck, 7, had started classes at King Edward School; Bouangeune, 17, was enrolled at Central High School of Commerce, Bouakham at Harbord Collegiate.

With his family gathered around the tiny, battered kitchen table, all smiling with approval, Som explains to a visitor through his friend and interpreter, Ba Van Ma, why later this month they intend to leave the donated flat. “We can never know the future,” he says quietly, “but now we must look after ourselves.” Despite the smiles, however, the Saysanasys are not happy to leave their rentfree home in which every room except the kitchen has become a bedroom; they are not glad that they may possibly have to leave the neighborhood where they now feel comfortable and safe.

They are moving for just one reason: because they believe it may enable another refugee family to escape the horror of the camps. Each week Som receives three or four letters from friends in Nong Khai and his determination to keep his family together is matched only by his desire to let others take his place on the sponsorship rolls.

In letters to his friends, Som tells of life in Canada. It is good, he writes, and in confirmation one need only look at his children. They glow with good health and, as they drift into the kitchen, coming from or heading for a nightly, recycled-but-not-shared bath, their solemnity is threatened by giggles as they hear Siphanh announce confidently in English that he loves frenchfries. The consensus is that they all love french-fries, and blue jeans, and bubble gum, and their teachers, and Big Macs and, most of all, fresh bread with butter and jam. The fridge is well-stocked with fruit, vegetables and ample supplies of butter and jam. An electric stockpot, the only household purchase the family has made, sits brimful of rice on the kitchen counter, and there’s always tea for visitors. Each Saturday Bouakham shops, either in Kensington Market or in the Chinese shops on Dundas and Spadina, trundling the week’s groceries home in a shopping cart. There is nothing on the shopping list, she

claims, that can’t be found in Toronto.

“Yes, yes,” the children like Toronto very much, even the winter, with skating at Alexandra Park rink and swimming indoors at Scadding Court Community Center. They like television, too, although they don’t have a set. English clearly won’t be a problem for long: Bouadeng chatters away, a big smile making up for a recalcitrant word, when she describes her friends, both in school and on the block, and her brothers and sisters are learning quickly too. But for Som and You, despite affirmations that they too find life good, there remain big worries. Som was laid off from his second job, as a helper in a muffler shop, in December, and it took a month before he found another. A goldand silversmith in Vientiane, he now finds his old trade too hard on his eyes and works as a carpenter’s assistant. He worries about getting lost in the city and needed considerable help before managing the four transfers on streetcars and buses to his job in Weston. He and daughter Somsamy, who works in a factory glueing together foam cushions for chesterfields and chairs, leave home at 5:45 a.m. and return 12 hours later. Som is then tired—not only from the long and physically demanding day, but also the strain of trying to understand instructions in English. Thus far he has been

too tired to attend night classes in English which could make life a lot easier. And, of course, Som worries about being “laid off” again—one English phrase he understands very well.

Although You is outside every day, hanging out the wash, which she does by hand in the bathtub, she dislikes the cold weather and rarely leaves home. Sometimes she suffers from headaches but she, too, if a little more slowly than the children, is adjusting to dry central heat and cold mornings. Both Som and You know that accommodation for 10 will be hard to find, and even more difficult to pay for on a net monthly income of about $1,400. They have saved a little, but there are the weekly grocery bills of $140, TTC fares for Som and Somsamy, school supplies for seven, and all the other inevitable needs of a large family. Their sponsors will provide $500 for furniture, and many of the household goods are theirs to keep, but Som worries that the older children still might have to go to work before they have a proper education and know enough English to find decent jobs.

Still, for Som and You, life recently was so much worse. They will not soon forget the anguish of having no hope. And now, Som says, their children “are Canadians,” and the time has come, after just six months, to help those left behind.