Kim Thúy on how her Vietnam experience compares to Syrian refugee crisis

Celebrated author Kim Thúy says Vietnamese refugees "were lucky" compared to those currently trying to flee Syria.

Celebrated novelist's first book recounts her own story as a Vietnamese boat person

Kim Thuy

Montreal author Kim Thúy was 10 when her family fled the Vietnam War and embarked on a harrowing journey to Canada.

Her debut French-language novel, Ru, which won the Governor General's Literary Award in 2010 and this year's Canada Reads, traces her own story as a Vietnamese boat person.

Canada eventually welcomed 60,000 people from the region, despite concerns at the time that some were communists. Since 2013, we've taken in fewer than 2,400 refugees from Syria.

On Monday, Thúy joined CBC Montreal Daybreak host Mike Finnerty in studio to discuss her memories of that time — and how it compares to the Syrian refugee crisis.

How does your own experience compare with what's happening in Syria?

I think there are very few similarities. Back then, we felt like the international community was waiting for us when we left Vietnam. We knew if we made it through the ocean, through the trip, then somebody would welcome us on the other side. Whereas I think nowadays, the situation is not the same for the Syrians. Nobody is waiting for them on the other side. We cannot compare because back then we were really, really very lucky.

In all, Canada welcomed some 60,000 people fleeing the Vietnam War. (COR/AFP/Getty Images)

Why were Canada's arms open for Vietnamese refugees?

I'm not sure. We will have to ask historians to explain the real motivation behind it. But in my mind, it was because there was that fight against the east. We were the proof that communism was not working. And also because the US was quite strong in this matter. The US had just pulled out and somehow, I think, they felt responsible responsible for the Vietnamese who were on their side from the south.

And yet with the Syrians, many of them are fleeing forms of terrorism. You'd think there would be some similar emotion to those trying to get away from something that is so much a daily part of our foreign policy.

We know that people are really fleeing a war. And we have pictures of this war. So I think there's no question that they are fleeing war. In French, there was an article trying to (explain) the difference between migrants and refugees. Migrants are those who choose to leave and refugees are those fleeing war. And I think right now we have refugees.

Have we changed? Or is it because Western society has much greater suspicion of Arab populations, even if they are refugees? 

Everything is about politics. I don't know enough to go deeper, but I believe it's decided by a group of people and the Vietnamese people had this luck, this fortune. It was because of (then prime minister) Joe Clark, who had this vision and had a policy to have us come and it was from the federal level to the municipal level, so the entire country was there to welcome us. Whereas now, I've talked to a couple people are ready to sponsor Syrian refugees — churches and other groups — and they've been waiting for two years.

This interview has been abridged.


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