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Fall of Kabul, refugee plight provoke painful memories for Vietnamese ’boat people’

Former Vietnam refugees urge Canada to bring in more people from Afghanistan

A picture taken in the late 1970s shows a group of refugees who arrived in Malaysia on a small boat that sank a few metres from shore. The flight of Vietnamese refugees began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In spite of the dangers of unfriendly waters and piracy, tens of thousands took the South China Sea. By 1978, the exodus had grown to dramatic proportions.

A picture taken in the late 1970s shows a group of refugees who arrived in Malaysia on a small boat that sank a few metres from shore. The flight of Vietnamese refugees began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In spite of the dangers of unfriendly waters and piracy, tens of thousands took the South China Sea. By 1978, the exodus had grown to dramatic proportions.

Photo: (K. Gaugler/AFP/Getty Images)

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For Kyanh Do, one of the thousands of so-called "boat people" who fled Vietnam for Canada, the departure of U.S forces in Afghanistan and its fall to the Taliban brings back painful memories of his own experiences. 

You may have two different countries. You may have different circumstances and circumstances, but the result is the same, said Do, who lives in Mississauga.

The communists took over Vietnam in 1975. The Taliban took over Afghanistan 2021. 

Some former boat people living in the Toronto area were transfixed by recent scenes of thousands of Afghans rushing the tarmac of Kabul's international airport, some clinging to an American military jet as it took off.

The image of the last airplane that left Afghanistan reminded me so much of the last helicopter that left the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975, Do said.

Indeed, the U.S troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and fall of Kabul to the Taliban reminds them of America's exit from Vietnam after losing the war, which prompted thousands of South Vietnamese civilians to flee the country on rickety boats. About 60,000 eventually wound up in Canada.

The Canadian government has pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. But some former Vietnamese refugees are hoping Canada can bring in more.

Kyanh Do, who fled Vietnam in 1978, is working with a Vietnamese Canadian centre in Ottawa that is contacting the federal government to figure out the most effective way to support Afghan refugees.

Kyanh Do, who fled Vietnam in 1978, is working with a Vietnamese Canadian centre in Ottawa that is contacting the federal government to figure out the most effective way to support Afghan refugees.

Photo: (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Do is currently working with a Vietnamese Canadian centre in Ottawa that is contacting the federal government to see how they can help the Afghan refugees most effectively.

I still remember many people, many Canadians have helped to bring me and my family here to Canada, so that's why we are so prepared to help other refugees in their needs, he said.

Perilous journey

Do was among the scores of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that were welcomed by Canada in the wake of the Vietnam War. And he was one of the thousands of so-called boat people who fled Vietnam, crammed into rickety fishing boats, on perilous trips to refugee camps located in other South Asian countries. Many died at sea or were targeted by pirates who might rob, rape or murder the passengers.

Do was 17 when he fled Vietnam in 1978, without his family. He left aboard a small fishing boat, one of about 300 passengers jammed inside.

On that boat, I realized I was alone.I gotta do whatever I have to to survive, he said.

It was horrible. It was really horrible. I was a boy when I got into that boat. And I think I became a man when I put my foot on that boat.

For three nights and four days he travelled, eventually reaching a Malaysian refugee camp. Three months later, he was accepted into Canada. He arrived in Montreal, later moved to the Quebec town of Granby before settling in Toronto.

Given what I have gone through with communism and look at the history with the Taliban government, I am so sure that there will be more refugees fleeing the country, he said. So I think Canada could do more and should do more. And people like myself, we should join our government to help the refugees more.

Toronto resident Duy Nguyen, who also fled Vietnam, agrees that Canada should be taking in more Afghan refugees.

'Reconsider greater amount'

"I hope that the government can reconsider a greater amount, like 30,000 or even 50,000 or even more, the most that they can accept to get the people that face the life threat out of the country and give them a chance to live in a safe place and a great place such as our country, Canada," he said.

Toronto resident Duy Nguyen, who arrived in Toronto in 1982, hopes Canada will bring in more than the 20,000 Afghan refugees it has pledged to resettle. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Toronto resident Duy Nguyen, who arrived in Toronto in 1982, hopes Canada will bring in more than the 20,000 Afghan refugees it has pledged to resettle. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Photo: (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Nguyen said that he was afforded that chance after he made it to an Indonesian refugee camp following six days in a small boat.

He left Vietnam when he learned he would be drafted into the communist army, insisting he'd rather die than fight for those who would kill people without any hesitation.

He was one of about 25 in the boat, mostly children, he said. 

Most of us did not have any idea of where we were going. We just have the idea that we were escaping Vietnam for freedom. That's the only thing that we we knew of.

Nguyen arrived in Canada at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Feburary 1982 with just a old pair of pants, an old shirt and sandals with holes in the soles. He did not have any underwear, socks or gloves.

Still, he said the first feeling was great, that I have arrived to the land of freedom that  I was dreaming of when I was still in Vietnam. And as I left Vietnam, I wanted to go to Canada.

'Very warmly welcomed'

He said when he arrived he faced some racism, but mostly, [Canadians] accepted us, they took us in.

I was very warmly welcomed by the government and by most 99.999 per cent of the people here.

Mississauga resident Hai Pham, another boat person, said he still remembers the moment he was accepted into Canada. 

WATCH | Former Vietnamese refugee says history repeating itself:

Pham left Vietnam in 1985 with his brother and spent 11 days at sea.

The engine failed, I think after the third day. So the boat kind of floated and drifted for seven days.

As they arrived at the Indonesian refugee camp, the boat broke open when it ran into rocks. Six people died because they couldn't swim, he said.

He said he's also shocked by the parallels of Vietnam and Afghanistan.

To me it's amazing, in one sense that history could repeat itself just like that and both times involve the Americans.The American left and everything's gone.

'In shock it's happening again'

I'm still in some kind of state of disbelief, because the things I saw on TV and what happened in 1975, there were so many similarities, Pham said.

I'm in shock it's happening again.

Pham said that for the people who get lucky enough to come to Canada, the next few months are  going to be a big challenge for them.

But I'm sure with the support that they have right now — I believe that Canada is an excellent place to live, he said.  We got people who respect your culture, respect your freedom. So if they come here it's gonna be a very lucky group to be able to come here and live.

Mark Gollom (new window)Farrah Merali (new window) · CBC News ·

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