Ottawa·Point of View

Vietnamese boat people of more than 3 decades ago now thriving, proud Canadians

CBC Ottawa reporter Judy Trinh, whose family was granted refuge in Canada as part of the wave of Vietnamese boat people, says her parents had a visceral response to the photo of the drowned Syrian boy. "That could have been you," her mom told her.

Drowned Syrian boy 'could have been you,' Sino-Vietnamese mom tells CBC Ottawa reporter Judy Trinh

Syrian refugee crisis: Lessons from Vietnamese boat people

8 years ago
Duration 5:33
CBC reporter Judy Trinh was four years old when her family fled from Vietnam

It was a photo that transported my parents back to the moment of their darkest fears, that their quest for a better life would be an exercise in futility and cost them their children's lives.

The photo was of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after his family tried to flee their war-ravaged past.

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"You know it could have been you or your sister," said my mother, referring to that day 36 years ago when my parents, each clutching a child jumped overboard into the South China Sea. At the time, there was no other choice.

It was January 1979 when my family began their perilous journey to flee Vietnam.

We were the last of the Trinh extended family to go and our situation was getting increasingly desperate.

I was four years old, my sister, two, was suffering from severe dysentery — but my parents could not risk staying. The Communist government had marked them for "re-education" and they were to be forcibly moved from Saigon to a labour camp in the countryside.

So they liquidated their assets, converting the totality of their lives into 30 one-ounce gold squares — the preferred currency in a desperate time.

The size of playing cards, the squares were easily slipped into the hands of Communist officials, drivers, sailors — anyone we needed to bribe to get to our destination.

For weeks we waited for a boat to arrive, and when it did, it fell far short of expectations.

It was a decrepit fishing boat, a bit longer than a yellow school bus and twice as wide.

'We just jumped'

A little more than 300 people crammed onto that boat. "Nose to nose" with one stranger beside you, and "feet to head" with another is how my mother remembers.

Sleep was difficult, especially alongside the quiet sobbing of a woman whose child died in her arms.

Refugees board a barge in Da Nang, Vietnam. 60,000 refugees from Vietnam came to Canada in the late 70s after the fall of Saigon. (Jack Cahill/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Death and disease loomed at sea, and so did terror at the hands of pirates.

On our journey we were attacked by two separate groups of marauders.

The first group pulled the wedding rings off my parents' fingers and stole the gold squares. The second group pilfered the food and water rations when they realized there were no valuables left to steal.

On the fifth day at sea, we finally saw land — only to have the hope on the horizon dashed by the Malaysian government, its coast guard blaring its unwelcome: The refugee camps are full. Go somewhere else.

Refuelling the fishing boat and replenishing drinking water were the coast guard's only acts of charity before they towed us back out to international waters.

Several people had already died during the voyage and that fear held the rest of us hostage.

Under cover of night, the captain made the decision to turn the boat back. The plan was to anchor the boat as close to the shoreline as possible, then sink the ship.

"We didn't know how deep the water was, we just jumped," my father remembers.

He also recalls dozens of people tearing apart the boat, clinging to scrap pieces of wood or the barrels that held food, anything that could float.

Nearly 300 people staggered onto the beach and were found by the coast guard the next day. By then the Malaysian government had no alternative but to take us to a refugee camp. The ship was damaged beyond repair.

A letter from Alberta

After three months at the camp, a team of Canadian officials arrived to process refugees. They were searching for people who wanted to settle in Canada or had some connection to the country.

My family's identity papers were lost at sea but there was one document my father had managed to salvage. It was a letter tucked into the lining of a jacket, written by his sister, Esther.

It stated that she was a foreign student attending college in Alberta and listed the names of her brother and his family and how she would help provide for us.

That was enough to convince a refugee official we deserved asylum. That would not be enough today for the millions of refugees fleeing Syria.

A Syrian refugee carries two children after arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. Nearly a million refugees and migrants are streaming into Europe in small boats and on foot this year. (Dimitris Michalakis/Reuters)

My parents often express surprise that Canada even let us in, but they marvel even more that we were allowed to stay.

Within a month of that meeting we were put on an airplane and flown to Lethbridge to be reunited with my Aunt Esther. Only she was no longer there.

Unsure of when or if we would arrive, she had left for Taiwan to take up a missionary post.

We had lost our guarantor. But our family wasn't turned away. Instead the government took it upon itself to provide.

Immigration workers found us a two-bedroom apartment, helped my father register in a welding course and enrolled my mom in English language courses.

I remember someone taking me to the Salvation Army to buy clothes and making sure I walked out with a winter coat.

Not the same today

If today's screening requirements had been in place back in 1979, my family would not be here.

From my reporting I know that local churches who want to sponsor Syrian refugees have been waiting for more than a year for pre-screened families to arrive.

In my circle of family and friends we have looked into sponsoring a refugee through what's known as a group of five application. But we were disheartened to learn from the Citizen and Immigration Canada website that it could take between 11 and 54 months to process one application.

The Trinh family with their Canadian names: mom, Rebecca; dad, Sam and daughters Helen and Judy. (Courtesy Trinh family)

In 1979, with much less technology, my family and I were on board a plane bound for Canada within a month of meeting an emergency team of refugee processors the government sent over to Malaysia.

As a child, my parents constantly reminded me of the gift we were given by the Canadian government and how we shouldn't squander the opportunity afforded us.

They led by example. My father, now retired, has worked as a court interpreter and welder. He once owned a restaurant. My mom is a financial planner.

A total of 11 of my parents' siblings were granted refugee status in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. And the children of these families have thrived, becoming doctors, teachers, ministers, engineers, pharmacists, urban designers, stock brokers and journalists.

There isn't a closet Communist among them.

Judy Trinh is a reporter and editor with CBC Ottawa. (Judy Trinh)

It took my parents more than seven years to pay the government back for the cost of the flights that first brought us to Canada. They paid it back in increments of $50 a month.

When they were in the clear, they decided to take the extra money and contribute to a cause they believed in.

Because it was the government of then prime minister Joe Clark who accepted the 60,000 Vietnamese boat people, my family among them, my parents signed up to be members of the Conservative Party.