Vietnamese-Canadians reach out to displaced Syrians

A Vietnamese brother and sister who were sponsored by a Canadian couple responding to the Vietnamese refugee crisis to Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s share their experience and how it's inspired them to help Syrian refugees now.
A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (The Associated Press)

The picture of the small, lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi went viral this week after his body washed up on a Turkish beach. Alan, his five-year-old brother Galib, and their mother Reham, all drowned while trying to flee by boat to the Greek island of Kos. Their devastated father and husband, Abdullah, survived. 

The Kurdi family was among the over four million Syrians who have fled the civil war in their country. Alongside tens of thousands of other refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, they are risking their lives by sea and by land to find asylum. 

It has been called the 'worst humanitarian crisis since World War II', and the photograph of Alan Kurdi has evoked a human horror that shifted even the election focus here in Canada. 

Immigration minister and Conservative candidate Chris Alexander suspended his campaign this week to address the crisis. He and Conservative leader Stephen Harper defended the government's refugee policy. But opposition leaders say it's not enough, and have pledged to do more.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair likened the impact of the photo of Alan Kurdi to that of Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera after being burned by a naplam attack on her village.

The Vietnam war created a refugee crisis of its own when hundreds of thousands of people fled after the fall of Saigon. Known as 'the boat people', Canada took in some 50,000 Vietnamese refugees in the late 70s and early 80s. 

Lien Tang was among them. She was 11 years old when she fled Vietnam with her younger brother. They ended up in a Malaysian camp and were sponsored by an Ontario couple, Clayton and Rosemary Connell, to come to Canada. The Connells sponsored the rest of the Tang family, including brother Tom, a few years later. 

Tom Tang is now spearheading an effort in the Vietnamese community through Lifeline Syria to help sponsor Syrian refugee families to come to Canada. 

Tom and Lien Tang joined Brent in our Toronto studio on Thursday. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Brent Bambury: Lien, I'd like to start with you. What comes to mind for you when you see pictures of the child that was washed up on the beach?

Lien Tang: It is very heartbreaking. Just looking at the picture reminds me of many people that left the country of Vietnam, and I understand the cry for help. I'm one of those boat people that fled the country to find a better future for me and my family. When you are in the camp, you need help and you want people out there to help bring you out. It's like a cave, so you want to step out and see the light.

BB: When you see the images of Syrian refugees, they're carrying their babies, they're being jammed into boats. What memories does that bring back for you?

LT: The smell. I remember how horrible the oil smelled. It made me want to vomit all the time. Also, we were hijacked by other boats that took all our food and everything, and our boat's motor stopped working, so we had to move by sail.

BB: So were you aware as a young child how dangerous, how precarious, the situation was for you?

LT: Yes, I was aware. If there was a wind storm, I could have died. I also heard about sharks, and I was scared.

BB: You were 11 years old at the time you left without your parents.

LT: Yes.

BB: What made you take that risk?

LT: Because I know there's no life, no future for my family and siblings. I was determined to leave for a better life for the rest of my family.

BB: Even though you were just a girl, you knew that was the truth.

LT: Yes.

BB: When you're in the camp, they asked you where you wanted to go.

LT: Yes.

BB: What did you tell them?

LT: I told them the United States, Canada or Australia. Then one day they came to me and they told me that one family in Canada wanted to sponsor us - would I want to go? I was so overjoyed and happy, and I said yes.

BB: How did you know as a girl of 11 that you wanted to do that?

LT: I just went with my instinct and my feeling that I'm going to be OK.

BB: And what would have happened to you if you had not taken that risk and stayed in Vietnam?

LT: I don't know where I would be today. Probably selling dessert on the street to help my parents and to survive.

BB: Tom, what about you? You were sponsored by the Canadian family that sponsored Lien several years later, but what do you think would have happened to you if you hadn't left Vietnam?

Tom Tang: Honestly, I've been back to Vietnam and I've seen some of my relatives and what they do in the life that they have. I could have been anything really - maybe selling myself on the street, or helping my parents sell stuff on the street to get by. Or, I could have become a successful person. I don't know, it's hard to imagine what my life would have been without our sponsor.

BB: You obviously believe the opportunities that you got in Canada were very important in your life, and now you're trying to mobilize the Vietnamese community to help sponsor Syrian refugees for the same reasons. There's a lot of Canadians wondering what they can do to help people like the Kurdi family. What's involved in sponsoring a family to bring them to Canada?

TT: We're working with Lifeline Syria, myself and two other individuals, to hopefully sponsor three families from Syria. It takes about $27,000 to sponsor a family of four, and $30,000 to sponsor a family of five. That will basically cover their one-year living expenses. Hopefully we'll be able to find them jobs so they can support themselves.

BB: And if it's a group that's sponsoring the family, as it is in this case, then who's ultimately responsible for the welfare and the wellbeing of each member of the family?

TT: Well it's the three of us spearheading this effort. We will obviously work very closely with whoever would like to help us, but ultimately we are responsible for their wellbeing while they're in Canada.

BB: There's a new sense of urgency around the refugee crisis here in Canada. As a family that went through a refugee crisis of your own, do you think things are happening fast enough?

TT: Honestly I don't. If you think about how many Vietnamese people were actually sponsored in between 1979-1980, which was 50,000, the effort that we're doing right now is nothing. We're talking about four million Syrians being displaced. I'm not trying to downplay our experiences, but it you compare the two, the Syrian crisis is worse now than the Vietnamese one was. 

BB: So is that sense of urgency shared in your community? You're asking members of your community to support this effort - are you expecting any reservations?

TT: I am hoping we won't. I am pretty confident we won't. But yes, obviously there are many different people, and our community is no different. I've approached some people for funding and been turned down, but that doesn't mean the whole community at large is not generous.

BB: The people who are turning you down - what are they saying to you?

TT: Well, some are saying it's not my problem, and some don't want to take on the responsibility. Some are misinformed, and say they don't want Muslims or that kind of people in the community. But you have to educate them, and hopefully with this mobilization we are going to open not just Canadians but Vietnamese people to the plight of people, not necessarily Muslim or any other race or any other religion.

BB: Tom are you proud of Canada's record when it comes to refugees and immigration?

TT: Right now no, from what I am reading I am not proud. I'm just imagining our family, and I don't think the Vietnamese people would be where we are right now in the same political climate. I definitely think we as a country, as Canadians, can actually step up to actually relieve a little bit of the sadness and the tragedy going on right now.

BB: Lien, what about you? As someone who made the voyage to Canada by boat, as a Vietnamese person, do you believe now that Canada is acting with best intentions when it comes to the refugee crisis that we're witnessing now?

LT:  They could do a better job to help more of the Syrian people.

BB: Do you believe your community is going to step up and help?

LT: We try our best, but I cannot speak for other people. I can only speak for how I feel.

BB: But what you feel is based on an experience that a lot of other Canadians have never had.

LT: Yes.

BB: And what is it that you do now? What are you doing in Canada?

LT:  I've become a restorative hygienist, and I work for Dr. Martha Roman.     

BB: So you work in dental health?

LT: Yes.

BB: And what about you, Tom?

TT:  I'm a chartered accountant by profession, and I own my own chartered accounting firm.

BB: So by any measure, both of you are incredibly successful.

TT: Yes, and thanks to the Canadian family again. Sponsoring two of my siblings not only helped them, there is a ripple effect. We're now a family of 40. It helped 40 people, and now that I'm a little more successful, I send money back to Vietnam to help the poor with their housing and water. It's not just our family that is really benefiting from the generosity of the Canadian family, it's the whole community. So I want Canadians to open their hearts and really give and help support Lifeline Syria.

BB: Tom and Lien, thank you for being with us.

TT and LT: Thank you very much for this opportunity.  


Tom Tang can be contacted directly at tomtangca [at] gmail.com for more information on their effort to sponsor Syrian refugee families.