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Breaking the silence around Vietnamese 'boat people'

02/06/2015 11:46 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT
Sabrina Anh Tú Hoa and ​​Glenn Xuân Long Hoa are Vietnamese Canadians, but have never lived in a war-torn country nor made the hazardous journey by boat from Vietnam to a neighbouring country.

In fact, the brother and sister did not find out the story of the Vietnamese boat people until they were adults.

The fall of Saigon, on April 30, 1975, sparked an exodus of Vietnamese people. Hundreds of thousands fled by boat, giving rise to the term "boat people."

Boat people fled Vietnam for more than a decade after the fall of Saigon.

The children of Vietnamese immigrants, Glenn and Sabrina were born and raised in Brossard, Que. Glenn, 30, is a dentist and Sabrina, 28, is a medical resident in rheumatology.

But Glenn says he only realized what it really meant to be a boat person when he was 28 years old.

"Before that, all I knew was that you don't say 'boat people.' If you say the word 'boat people,' it was a bad term and it brought back bad memories. So it's a word that you don't mention," he says.

All that changed when he saw a documentary called Bolinao 52, made by Vietnamese-American filmmaker Hữu Đức Nguyễn​.

"The documentary was only 40 minutes, but it gives such a vivid image of what they had to go through," he says.

The film tells the story of a boat full of refugees who escaped Vietnam in 1988. Of the 110 passengers on board, only 52 survived the journey.

​Glenn saw it at a Vietnamese youth leadership convention he attended in Calgary in August 2012.

"And because I watched it with so many young people around me, it really struck us hard, to the point that it made us really curious to find out who among our family and our friends are boat people."

Shortly after he also read the novel Ru, by author Kim Thúy, which further piqued his curiosity.

While Sabrina and Glenn’s own parents were not boat people, Glenn says he was surprised to discover that around 80 per cent of his parents’ generation were.

"But what surprised me even more is that some of my friends, maybe barely three or four years older, were boat people," he says.

"Some of these people, when you think about it, if they were not in your life, your life would not be the same."

C'est la vie is broadcasting a special series on the Vietnamese community in Quebec, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

You can hear it on C'est la vie on CBC Radio One, hosted by Bernard St-Laurent. Listen to the series online.​

Sabrina learned the story of the Vietnamese boat people when she was 19 years old, when she met her future husband. 

He and his parents were boat people. She says that knowing what they went through makes her appreciate being here.

"We're so lucky to be alive, and to be in a place where everybody has the same opportunities, that we’re in this free society,"  she says.

Between 1971 and 1980, close to 40,000 Vietnamese people came to Canada, including 8,000 to Quebec.

The community has flourished in the province. In the 2011 census 42,480 people in Quebec says they had Vietnamese origins.

Learning about the boat people prompted Glenn to raise funds for a boat people museum in Ottawa. While the museum has yet to be built, Glenn says the project has already helped bridge the gap between the generations, raising awareness of what his parents' generation lived through. 

"They were about 25, 30 when they left — they had dreams too, just like us. But these dreams were left behind," Glenn says.

He says they sacrificed everything so that their children could succeed.

"Our own parents, I think they never went to the restaurant. They never went to the movies, they never went to the opera, they don't buy fancy stuff. But indeed, they bought us a piano. So I mean, they would do everything, and I think that's awesome," he says.

His sister Sabrina agrees.

"They would give everything for us, for our education, and we wouldn't have been where we are now without their sacrifice," she says.

Sabrina and Glenn are also grateful to Canada for welcoming their parents, and Glenn has found his own way of giving back. He recently joined the reserves of the Canadian Armed Forces as a dentist.

"There's the courage of all these Vietnamese people who came. But there was also this awesome country called Canada who who took them in, says Glenn.

"And I think if my parents' generation had to give so much energy to survive and create a new community, I think that now that we're settled, then I think my generation has a duty towards this country, to give back the best way we can. And so I joined, and the rest is history."

Au revoir Vietnam, bonjour Quebec

C’est la vie’s series on Vietnamese immigrants in Quebec airs on Sunday nights at 6:30 p.m., on Jan. 18, Jan. 25, Feb. 1 and Feb. 8.

The programs are rebroadcast on Tuesday mornings at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, Jan. 27, Feb. 3 and Feb. 10.

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