Winnipeg tailor Tam Nguyen knows what Syrians fleeing conflict in tiny boats over dangerous waters are facing — he's done it himself.

Nguyen's flight from a repressive Vietnamese regime in 1980 is portrayed in a mural being painted on the side of his convenience store in Winnipeg's Osborne Village.

Joy's Convenience to showcase mural to honour refugees

Sarah Collard paints a likeness of Winnipeg businessman Tam Nguyen into a mural depicting the journey of Vietnamese "boat people."

The painting marks the 40th anniversary of the arrival in Canada of what were called "boat people" from Vietnam. Nearly two million people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh, to communist North Vietnamese forces in 1975.

The mural, currently being painted on Joy's Convenience on River Avenue by Manitoba artist Sarah Collard, was planned long before the Syrian migrant crisis exploded into headlines, but the parallels between those who left Vietnam and the Syrian war refugees are hard to miss. Like the Syrians, the Vietnamese fled their war-torn country in tiny boats and many died when the crowded vessels capsized.

Nguyen, who now owns several businesses in Winnipeg, was 23 when he put his life and his future into a tiny boat headed from Vietnam to Malaysia. He spent five days on the crowded boat, surviving on raw fish and a single container of water after his two-day supply of food ran out.

'It was freedom or die. We wanted something better.' - Tam Nguyen

"It was freedom or die. We wanted something better," Nguyen said.

Even being a fashion-savvy tailor — Nguyen's profession — had carried risks in Vietnam. Bell-bottoms were forbidden for being "too American," but Nguyen wore them anyway until he was stopped at a checkpoint.

"They cut off my pants from the knee down. I had to go home and get new clothes so I could go to work," he said. 

Unwilling to give up the style, he made his own pants with a zipper that let the leg in and out so he could get through checkpoints but still look fashionable once he was past.

Nguyen visiting the Manitoba Legislative Building in the 1980's

A young Tam Nguyen poses at the Manitoba Legislative Building shortly after coming to Winnipeg.

Nguyen went into hiding for three years to avoid conscription in 1977.

"I had seen enough killing, enough fighting," he said. 

When his mother was accused of hiding him and jailed for a week, he knew he had to leave. He climbed into one of the many boats fleeing Vietnam and ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where he stayed for six months before coming to Canada.

That journey is the theme of the mural, but artist Collard sees in her work the plight of Syrian refugees today.

"As an artist and also as a muralist ... I enjoy it when I can look in the newspaper and see parallels to what I'm working on," she said. "I'm really proud of the fact that I'm a Canadian ... that we welcome Canadians and we've done that for years, first with the boat people and now hopefully with others."

Tam Nguyen at his tailoring shop on Ellice Ave

Tam Nguyen opened his own tailor shop on Ellice Avenue in 1986. He still works there today.

Tom Ethans of Take Pride Winnipeg, which started the process by asking Nguyen if a mural could be painted on his building, also sees the parallels.

"We saw that the building had been getting tagged over the years and we thought it was a good location for a mural," Ethans said. "It turned out to be good timing with everything that is happening with Syria right now and the problems those refugees are facing."

Nguyen, who employs many immigrants at his businesses, said he hopes Canada continues to welcome refugees.

"Canada is strong. We have all nationalities here. We have always done it before. ... They can raise themselves up like I did," he said.