Montreal·Podcast

Kim Thúy's plea to Canada: 'Help refugees the way you helped me'

Canadian literary star Kim Thúy wants Canada to welcome more refugees from Syria and other war-torn Muslim countries, the same way it welcomed her family and 60,000 other Vietnamese four decades ago.

'We fell in love with Canada from minute 1,' says Governor General's award-winning author of Ru

Kim Thuy brought host Steve Rukavina to her favourite fish market in Montreal for a wide-ranging interview for CBC's new podcast, Montreapolis. (Steve Rukavina)

This is the eighth installment in CBC's new podcast series, Montreapolis. You can hear a full feature interview with Governor General award-winning author Kim Thúy on CBC's new podcast Montreapolis, which brings you conversations with people who make up modern Montreal. Subscribe here.

Canadian literary star Kim Thúy wants Canada to welcome more refugees from Syria, the way it welcomed her family four decades ago.

"Maybe Canadians forget how great they are, but they welcomed 60,000 Vietnamese in two years," Thúy told CBC Montreal's new podcast Montreapolis in a wide-ranging interview.

Thúy came to Quebec as part of the wave of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Canada has accepted 38,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015.

Canada now scaling back refugee welcome

Thúy said she was deeply moved when Canada opened its doors to Syrians.

"I felt so proud of us. I have always known that this country is great. This confirms the greatness of our nation, but we can do more," Thúy said.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard presented a newly arrived Syrian refugee with a teddy bear at Pierre Elliot Trudeau international airport in December 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

After the initial welcome, Canada has since scaled back its plans to welcome Syrian refugees due to a backlog and the time it takes to process applications.

Thúy said Canada proved with the influx of Vietnamese refugees that it has the capacity to welcome a lot of people in a short time.

She has never forgotten the kindness she and her family were shown.

More from Montreapolis:

Instant love affair

When Thúy arrived in the town of Granby, 80 kilometres east of Montreal, in 1976, she was a dirty, bedraggled eight-year-old with headlice and diarrhea and a skin infection.  

Despite her appearance, she said she and her family were welcomed with enthusiasm.
Kim Thúy's book Ru features vignettes about a young woman who leaves Saigon during the Vietnam War. (Penguin Random House)

"These Quebecers, Canadians, they were so huge in comparison with us, so tiny and so skinny, and they just took us in their arms, without even one second of hesitation," Thúy said.

"We fell in love with Canada from minute one," she continued. 

Ignorance and fear

Thúy said resistance to welcoming refugees often stems from ignorance and fear.  That can include fear of terrorism, as well as fear of newcomers stealing jobs or leaching off the government.

How one looks at that is a matter of perspective, she said.

Thúy said she arrived from Vietnam with 13 members of her immediate and extended family

"The 13 people who arrived that day came with nothing. Thirty-five years later … our common fortune is somewhere near $20 million,"  Thúy said.

"You can look at it two ways: you can say that these 13 immigrants have stolen millions from this country, or you can say that these 13 people have contributed in enriching this country," she continued.

'I was beautiful in those eyes'

As for security fears, Thúy said they often evaporate once people get to know refugees.

"My mother always said to me it's when you're scared that you have to jump in and face the music and face the monster, because when you get so close to the monster you realize it's not a monster,"  Thúy said.

"That's the moment where you have to go in and try to understand and get really up close and personal with your own fear."

"I hope that's what we're going to do," she said.

Thúy said that moment when Quebecers embraced her decades ago changed her life.

"I still remember [looking] in their eyes … that was the first time that I saw myself again. And I have never been so beautiful, I was beautiful in those eyes," Thúy said

More from Montreapolis:

You can hear a full feature interview with Kim Thúy on CBC's new Montreapolis podcast, bringing you conversations with people who make up modern Montreal. Click here to subscribe.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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