Almost four decades ago, the first Vietnamese refugees began arriving in Toronto, traumatized and penniless, following the Communist takeover of South Vietnam.
Today, many of those refugees are aging, including about 100 living in nursing homes scattered across the GTA.
As a community volunteer, Thanhnha Nguyen often visits elderly Vietnamese in those homes. She will never forget one woman — the only Vietnamese resident in one of the largest nursing homes in the GTA.
Like many Vietnamese of that generation, the tiny woman spoke no English. Unable to eat the pasta and meat-based meals that the home provided, she weighed only about 90 pounds. "She was just bones and skin," recalls Thanhnha.
Many Vietnamese seniors feel like outsiders in these retirement homes, says Thanhnha, but for this particular woman the sense of isolation was so devastating that she had tried to end her life.
Thanhnha recalls asking the elderly woman why her face was so pale and blue. "She told me she had tried to bang her head against the wall to try to kill herself," says Thanhnha.
For Thanhnha, it was a turning point. "That’s when I said, we have to do something for our community — for our parents."
Thanhnha, a long-time employee of RBC Financial Services, vowed that she would help raise funds for a retirement home for Vietnamese seniors — staffed by people who spoke their language and where Vietnamese seniors would be served traditional rice-based meals.
Today, after more than a year, her dream of building the Golden Age Village for the Elderly is partially realized.
A volunteer board of seven fundraisers led by the Buddhist monk Venerable Thich Thien Tam, who successfully led a fundraising campaign to build a Vietnamese seniors home in Edmonton, the group has already purchased a six-acre property in Vaughan near Canada’s Wonderland.
About 100,000 Vietnamese people live across the GTA, most of them in Toronto and Mississauga and Vaughan. A 6,000-square-foot home on the property is already being used as a club by Vietnamese seniors.
On most Sundays, up to 100 people show up for tai chi and cooking classes, sharing a communal meal before returning to their own homes. Many seniors are impatient for the day when they don’t have to leave — 600 people are on the waiting list for the as-yet unbuilt retirement home.
For Thanhnha, the work of fundraising takes up every spare moment of her day, forcing her to miss many of her own weekly gatherings with her large extended family. Unlike many Vietnamese families in Toronto, she and her eight siblings are able to look after their own aging parents in their homes.
Her own father, now in his late 80s, helped instill in Thanhnha a lifelong commitment to community activity. Phu Trong Nguyen was a diplomat in the South Vietnam government which was overthrown in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended.
Because of his position, the Communist government suspected him of having CIA connections. Like thousands of former government employees and military officers, he too was sent to a so-called re-education camp for indoctrination.
Thousands of people died of disease and starvation in the prison camps — a tool not just to indoctrinate Vietnam’s educated class, but also a form of revenge, in which many people were tortured.
Her father spent seven years being moved around from one re-education camp to another. In his last year he was partially paralyzed and on the verge of death.
When one of his fellow inmates was released, he sent along a letter to says goodbye to his family in Saigon, he reminded them that he loved them, and to Thanhnha, in particular, he said that whenever she played the Blue Danube by Strauss on her piano at home, his spirit would be with her.
Telling me the story almost 40 years later, Thanhnha’s voice thickens with emotion.
Although he didn’t know it, the piano, along with all the furniture — even the light fixtures — had been taken away or sold.
The children had finished school — something their father had valued above all — but as children of former government officials, their applications weren’t accepted by any universities.
But for Thanhnha, the family’s Yamaha piano was the hardest loss. Sitting on a curb outside her home, Thanhnha sobbed as she watched the family’s piano being loaded onto a van.
She asked the new owner if she could come to his home sometime to play it. "He said no," she tells me. "I never knew where it went."
Her father survived prison camp and on his release, he returned briefly to Saigon to his family.
Two of his sons, who had left Vietnam before 1975 to attend university abroad, sponsored the rest of the family to join them in Canada.
Thanhnha arrived in Canada with her parents and her siblings on September 23, 1983. The next month, she resumed school and began studying English to prepare for university. She worked part-time at any job she could find — cleaning, babysitting and waiting on tables.
When Thanhnha finally got her first full-time job after university as a systems analyst with IBM Canada, her first purchase was an instalment on a piano — a Yamaha upright to replace the Yamaha she’d lost all those years ago.
Today, Thanhnha is financially secure — as is her family, which includes two doctors, a dentist, and a PhD — all of them active in the Vietnamese community. The family’s leadership was acknowledged by the Vietnamese Association of Toronto which honoured the family for its contribution. Thanhnha’s family reflects the growing confidence of second and third generation Vietnamese-Canadians who by now are well integrated in Toronto`s mainstream.
There've been earlier efforts in Toronto to raise funds for a Vietnamese retirement home but Thanhnha is confident that now the time is finally right.
"Just in the past ten years there's more money in the community," says Thanhnha. "At this stage, more and more of the younger generation has graduated from university and is working. It has to work. It has to work!"
She’s buoyed by the completion of a seniors home in Edmonton, already up to full capacity with about 150 seniors — a foreshadowing of an even larger home that Thanhnha’s hopes to see completed in Toronto four to five years from now.