Vietnamese families given ‘chance to rebuild their lives’ in Ottawa

Jessey Bird (jbird@thecitizen.canwest.com), Ottawa Citizen

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ottawa – Just after 11 p.m. Thursday night, Loan Thi Le stood at the bottom of the arrival escalator at the Ottawa International Airport. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she clutched a tissue and waited. She hadn’t seen her sister in nearly 20 years. The first of several Vietnamese families moving to Ottawa arrived late last night, after nearly two decades of living in limbo in the Philippines. Nhan Thanh Nguyen, 55, and his wife, Hue Thi Le, 46, descended the escalator right on time, where they were greeted by a group of anxious and excited members of Ottawa’s Vietnamese community. Loan Thi Le, who travelled from Los Angeles to greet her family, raced in to Hue Thi Le’s arms, before she even had the chance to step off the stairs. “I’m very, very, happy,” said Loan Thi Le, breaking in to sobs. “This is my sister.”

“This is a chance to rebuild their lives,” said Can D. Le, national co-ordinator of the Vietnamese Canadian Federation’s project Freedom at Last. Canada recently granted stateless Vietnamese people living in the Philippines permanent entry on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled, mainly by boat, with many arriving in the Philippines. Though a number were able to settle in other countries, those who remained in the Philippines were considered stateless.

Freedom at Last has raised more than $500,000 to support families immigrating to Canada as well as the United States and Australia. In March, families began to arrive in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. “They had no status,” said Can D. Le. “They were not allowed to work, their children were not allowed to go to school, so many had to get by by buying and selling things illegally.” “They live on a day-to-day basis without hope,” he said. Haquyen Nguyen has lived in Canada since 1981. Though she has never met the family, she decided to make it her mission to help. Her organization, Ottawa Friends, is one of 41 across the country taking part in Freedom at Last. She rallied 19 people to raise enough money to grant the family of six a fully furnished rental unit in Kanata, as well as job opportunities the minute they are settled and ready to work.

In their years in the Philippines, Hue Thi Le was the only one to find employment, said Haquyen Nguyen. For the last several years, she worked as a chef for the non-profit group VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment). Established in 1997 in Manila, the group has assisted thousands of stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines. While Hue Thi Le could afford to send her children to school, they would not receive any official certification because of their lack of status. “The whole family lived in one room,” said 22-year-old Vi Hoai Nguyen, a 22-year-old Ottawa resident who travelled to Manila to volunteer with VOICE in late 2007. “They had two big mattresses on the floor, and that was all that they had.”

“We are going to support this family,” said Haquyen Nguyen, adding that her husband fled Vietnam by boat in 1975. He was then stranded in Hong Kong for several months, until a Canadian family sponsored him and brought him to Toronto. “He really appreciated what those people did for him,” said Haquyen Nguyen. “So we think since Canadians can do that … why can’t we help our own people?” “They have been waiting 20 years,” said Can D. Le. “Their situation was so hopeless before, and they didn’t know what was going to happen to them.” “I am really touched by everyone that is here to support us,” said Hue Thi Le, through a translator. “For many years I was a street vendor and it was really difficult, because my children, after school, would have to help me sell things on the streets,” she said, in tears. “I am really happy to have freedom after so many years.”

The federal government accepted 89 applications based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, representing 160 stateless Vietnamese, said Danielle Norris, spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. So far, only one application has been denied, and they are expecting the arrival of 159 people in the coming months. “This is something that is important to the government,” said Ms. Norris. “Let’s say you live in Canada and you don’t have Canadian citizenship,” she said. “You don’t have health care, you can’t go to school, and getting a job is difficult.” “It is really not a way to live.”