'That photo took him back': Vietnamese refugee recognizes himself in CBC story about boat people

When Andy Huynh's sister forwarded him a CBC story about Vietnamese boat people, he never expected to see his own face staring out from one of the photos used to illustrate the tale of how more than 70,000 refugees were brought to Canada after the end of the Vietnam War.

Andy Huynh was one of the thousands of Vietnamese refugees screened by Canadian diplomats in late 1970s

Andy Huynh, left, at the Galang Island refugee camp in Indonesia in 1980. The photo captures Huynh, 17 at the time, on the day he was approved for a visa to enter Canada as a refugee. (John McEachern)

Sometimes, an old photo can transport your mind to the past, unlocking memories and triggering a flood of unexpected emotions. This was the case for Andy Huynh, 55, when his sister emailed him a CBC News story detailing how Canadian visa officials working in Southeast Asia helped bring tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people to Canada.

The story featured a photo of immigration officer John McEachern interviewing a group of teenagers at the Galang refugee camp in Indonesia in 1980. The youngest boy is wearing a striped T-shirt and staring directly at the camera, with an expression both innocent and curious.

That boy was Huynh. He was 17 at the time.

I remember that striped shirt. It was a UNICEF shirt.- Andy Huynh, 55, former Vietnamese refugee

"I was ecstatic when I saw myself in the photo," said Huynh from his home in Winnipeg. "I never thought I would see a picture of myself from that time. I didn't know it existed.

"In the photo, I see my brother and my cousins. We were having an immigration interview. My English wasn't good. And I remember that striped shirt. It was a UNICEF shirt."

Andy Huynh, in the striped shirt, is interviewed by immigration officer John McEachern, left. McEachern conducted the interview that allowed Huynh and his brother entry to Canada in 1980. (John McEachern)

Back in June 1979, Huynh and his older brother, Hung, escaped communist Vietnam by boarding a rickety boat loaded with about 200 people bound for Indonesia. They were among the more than 800,000 boat people to leave the country in the years after South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.

"It took four to five days on the sea. We were chased by pirates, but they didn't catch us. It was a horrible boat ride. We were lying shoulder to shoulder. When the boat hit the high seas, people were throwing up all over one another," he said.

"But my boat was considered one of the lucky ones." 

Thousands of boat people drowned when their vessels fell apart and sank in the South China Sea. There were also pirates who robbed many other refugees and raped women. 

Indonesian police dragged the boat Huynh and his brother were on to the Galang Island refugee camp, where they waited for their resettlement interview. Conditions were primitive, and they struggled to survive. 

Huynh arrived first in Edmonton but eventually settled in Winnipeg, where he still lives today. (Jessica Huynh)

"We bought a roof of coconut leaves for $100 US, [and] we walked over a mile to get water," Huynh said. 

These stories are revelations to Huynh's four children, according to his daughter Jessica, 23, who is studying creative industries at Ryerson University in Toronto. She said her father rarely spoke about his refugee experience when they were growing up in Winnipeg.

"This is the most my dad has ever told us," Jessica said. "That photo took him back. That made him stop and think about what he went through."

The photo is mesmerizing for her, too, she said.

"He's looking right at the camera, staring and in that exact moment, his fate is being determined."

McEachern approved Huynh and his brother as government-sponsored refugees, and they boarded a plane first for Edmonton and then Winnipeg, where they both settled. Other family members eventually joined them in Canada.

Huynh visiting Banff national park in Alberta in the 1990s. His daughter says he would have liked to have been a scientist but his lack of English limited his options, and he ended up working factory jobs to support his family. (Andy Huynh)

Huynh took a series of factory jobs. He and his wife, also a Vietnamese boat person, worked long hours to provide a stable and comfortable life for their children.

"I saved every penny I could, but I couldn't afford the extras," said Huynh.

Like most kids, Jessica said she grew up oblivious to the hardships her parents had overcome as refugees.

"If I didn't want to eat dinner, my dad would say, 'You should be grateful. There were times we didn't have enough to eat.'" 

She said she thinks moving to Canada with little English limited the type of work her father could get.

"He's really smart," Jessica said. "I used to ask him what he would have liked to have done for work if language wasn't a barrier, and he would tell me, 'I always wanted to be a scientist.'"

Huynh and his young daughters, Shannon, left, and Jessica, right, in Winnipeg. He and his wife, also a refugee from Vietnam, raised four children in Canada and put all four through university. The youngest recently graduated. (Andy Huynh)

Huynh and his wife worked hard to put all four of their kids through university.

"Seeing us go to university makes him so proud," Jessica said.

Her brother recently graduated. 

Like many former boat people, Huynh has returned to Vietnam several times for visits.

"I couldn't even recognize my hometown anymore," he said.

Jessica says her father has been trying to find his childhood friends and that he's been swapping photos with those he has found. 

"I live in the digital era, so I can just Google anything," she said. "If I want to learn about another country, I can do so with a click of a button. I can't even imagine what it was like for my parents to emigrate to a new country and leave everything and everyone they knew behind.

"I feel a lot more appreciative of my life now." 

Jessica Huynh says she's very appreciative of the struggles her parents, both Vietnamese refugees, went through to give her and her siblings a better life in Canada. ( Jessica Huynh)

If that 38-year-old photo of the boy in the striped T-shirt has brought back painful memories for Huynh, he's keeping them private. Recently, he spoke to Jessica about the photo. Instead of lingering on the hardship of his past, he saw something much more hopeful. 

"It's really weird," he told Jessica. "I look at this photo, and I see you."

His journey has left a profound impact on the whole family. 

"Seeing that photo makes him realize how much he has accomplished," said Jessica. 

 "And we're all saying to him: 'We're really proud of you.'"

Huynh at Grand Prix Amusements in Winnipeg in the 1990s. Huynh has been returning to Vietnam regularly over the years but only recently started using social media to try and find his childhood friends. (Andy Huynh)


Jennifer Clibbon is a producer with the CBC News radio syndication service. She lived in China from 1990 to 1994, working as an English teacher and freelancing for CBC Radio, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press. She returned to China in 2005 as a field producer for CBC TV-NYT documentary series China Rising.