In search of a chance to grow

Barbara Amiel July 2 1979

In search of a chance to grow

Barbara Amiel July 2 1979

In search of a chance to grow

With careful courtesy and shaking hands, Doan Thi Khai, 58, places the thick hotel-issue tumblers on the table, each one filled halfway with orange pop. She places paper napkins next to them. Her husband, Vo Tai Hoa, 58, puts his most precious possession, a pack of Canadian cigarettes, in the middle of the table, one cigarette pulled halfway out, and gestures to the visitors with his hand. The room in the Toronto hotel—under contract to Canada Manpower—is crowded with Vo's family and the extended family he has inherited on the way from Vietnam. Survival chances for escapees are 50 per cent and older people rarely make it.

Vo was a tailor for 38 years. By the time he was 50 he had a shop and 14 employees. In 1977, the authorities in Long Xuyen, Vietnam, accused him of making dresses for wives of officials of the old regime. The sentence: relocation in a “new economic zone“—a euphemism for exile to

the underdeveloped jungle camps. For a man of his age, it meant almost certain death. Vo had never been out of Vietnam in his life before. It took him four attempts and $12,000 to get to Pulau Besar camp. He is gaunt now from the weight he lost in the 10 months of climbing up and down a steep mountainside from his squatting place to the daily food rations. When his Canadian visitor turns from the phone, ordering Chinese food, to ask Vo what he and his family would like to eat, Vo looks mystified. The translator repeats the question. Vo repeats

it to the room. Everyone breaks out into irrepressible peals of laughter as they repeat the question to one another. What would you like to eat? The grins split worried faces and suddenly the room of confused Vietnamese sitting on beds draped with dreadful khaki blankets is filled with merriment. It is such a funny question.

Humor is seized on by the refugees wherever they can find it. At Toronto’s airport, they arrive tired and frightened. Greeted by John Do Trong Chu, their eyes flicker warily. No sign of recognition—only fear. As he comes closer they see the diagonal orange stripes on the name tag pinned to his suit jacket. Faces relax. The colors are from the flag of pre-Communist Vietnam. "They understand,” says Chu, “that it is safe now to talk."

At the end of 1978 there were about 9,000 Vietnamese settled in Canada. This year’s immigration will nearly double that. Montreal comes the closest to having a settled community: pre-war Vietnamese from the early 1950s came here on Colombo Plan scholarships to study at French-speaking universities. Understandably, that community is more politically divided than Toronto’s recent arrivals. Mont-

real Vietnamese include a core who came while French colonialism was in full swing and brought with them strong ties to the Viet Cong. Pro-Hanoi restaurants, organizations and newspapers are organized to fight the "propaganda” of the new refugees.

Quebec Premier René Lévesque says the province is ready to take many more Vietnamese refugees "without any reti-

cence,” but cautions that provincial immigration is still tied to federal approval. Quebec strategy is geared to “de-metropolitanizing” the refugees and settling them in smaller communities—a civilized version of their homeland’s resettlement program.

In Toronto, the community is still barely organized and maintains only one Vietnamese restaurant. New arrivals scatter in the city core close to transportation and in the cheap rooming houses with a distinct preference for Toronto’s Kensington Market area—first home to East European Jews and Portuguese immigrants and close to Chinatown with its familiar products.

Sitting in small, furnished rooms, often overlooking the clatter of streetcars and the sirens of police en route to break up local tavern brawls, the new refugees talk about "the peace and tranquillity” of this new home. Canada Manpower and Immigration provides initial food money ($8 per day per adult) and $6 a week carfare. Emergency shopping for clothes and food supplies is done the day after arrival when immigrants have had a chance to settle into the accommodation provided and catch up on the fatigue of nearly 36 hours of constant travel.

Many refugees require medical attention and the first day their Ontario Health Insurance Plan cards arrive they are ushered off to local hospitals. This week, 51/2-monthold Marina Nguyen will go for surgery to repair her harelip and cleft palate. She has no birth papers yet, having had the bad timing to arrive on the boat on which her mother, Nguyen Thi Hong, 21, was escaping. Her father is already looking for work and probably, like most refugees, he will take on a minimum-wage job in a factory or as a dishwasher within 10 days of his arrival.

But not all is pollyanna. Rumors circulate of drinking problems among young Vietnamese males far away from the strong family circle to which they were accustomed, alone and with a pay cheque in their pockets for the first time in their lives. Among the ethnic Chinese, disappointment is felt at the coldness of the established community to their plight. “They give out a few jobs in restaurants, but that’s all,” said one social worker. “We have become a people too used to watching human suffering impassively.”

As a small number of volunteers struggle to cope with the problems—in Toronto organizing youth clubs and a martial arts program-hopes rest ultimately on the willingness of Canadians to provide employment and friendship. “These people have fled such a terrible regime and want so badly to survive and be independent,” says Ontario Welcome House counsellor Mrs. Aisu Chong. “All they need is a chance to breathe. You know, like the song goes . . . a chance to grow.” Barbara Amiel