Peace was a cruel mirage in Vietnam a couple of generations ago. A seemingly endless war ultimately killed nearly 60,000 Americans and perhaps thirty to fifty times that many Vietnamese - children, women and men. After the war hundreds of thousands fled, many by boat, under appalling conditions and with huge loss of life. By June 1979, some 350,000 were in refugee camps across Southeast Asia.
In Ottawa, Mayor Marion Dewar launched the unprecedented Project 4000, a community drive to welcome that number to the city, and the federal government, led by Joe Clark, raised the refugee quota from 8,000 to 50,000. Volunteer groups formed quickly, including one in our east Ottawa neighbourhood, raising funds and collecting clothing, furniture and supplies. A local landlord donated a row house, free for a year, and soon ‘our’ family arrived — a very practical man, a gracious woman, and their two small daughters.
They settled in well though the woman, who fell unconscious on the crowded boat and barely survived, worried about her young brother, a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, and their mother, still in Vietnam. The girls started school while their parents began language lessons — where, in a school hallway, the woman found her brother. He had lain among bodies in a ditch to survive a firefight, and had later found his way to a camp in a different country — then had been accepted by Canada.
The family adapted to their new, different, cold homeland. They moved to Toronto and opened a clothing store. The brother managed to sponsor his mother, making a compelling argument (in his third language) to an immigration appeal judge. He also learned how to make the special cheesecake of a trendy Byward Market cafe, ran a restaurant in Nova Scotia (learning some words in Mi’kmaq to welcome First Nations customers), and finally settled and raised a family in Niagara Falls. The whole experience was good. For the volunteers, spin-offs included new friendships, the opening of a small business that continues to serve the neighbourhood, and a contact that led to a career for an unemployed teenager. For the sponsored family, Canada meant freedom, opportunity, and above all peace.
By: Allan Thornley