Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 11, 2004
'Thank you Canada; thank you Edmonton'
Vietnamese boat people sparked 25 years of Church sponsoring refugees
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
The will and faith of Huong Tran would not be overcome as she shuttled her six children onto a floppy boat moored to a turbulent Vietnamese shore. Her eldest daughter, Thang, then 21, feared boarding because a distant typhoon was roiling the sea.
Their vessel steered around others that had capsized. People were tossed into the water, screaming.
Escaping a life ravaged by war and physical abuse, Huong was undaunted, settling in an internment camp in Malaysia. The family was destitute, confined with many others who would soon be known internationally as "boat people."
Thang interpreted for her mother in a recent interview, joined by members of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch, who sponsored the Trans to come to Canada soon after the private sponsorship of refugees program was enacted 25 years ago.
The Trans were among the first of more than 3,000 refugees who have been sponsored by parishes in the Edmonton Archdiocese over the past 25 years.
"My mother had two American dollars when we arrived at the Vancouver airport. She was afraid of not knowing how to support her children. My youngest sister was only five years old. But she gave one dollar away to a young boy who met us," Thang said, as Huong proudly displayed the other.
Phil and Vicky Baril were part of the parish sponsorship committee. Phil said the experience changed not only their lives, but those of their children.
"We have all bonded so well with this new family. It was a new experience. The initiative came from Father Gilles Gauthier who said 'We want a special family.' He felt we should sponsor a widow and her children. We accepted the task," he said.
Huong left her first husband because of his constant beatings. Her second husband was killed fighting in the Vietnam War. She said the war went on so long, she can't remember who he was fighting for.
Henry Heuver assumed the task of helping the Trans find housing.
"What struck us the most was their appreciation," he said. "We didn't anticipate it. It was overwhelming. We had never seen a family so appreciative of something we thought was a natural thing to do."
Huong went to work immediately as a seamstress and later in the evenings, she washed dishes. Thang said her mother often came home at midnight.
Huong raised her children who have grown up to become doctors and engineers. She now has 12 grandchildren in Canada and she attends English classes through Catholic Social Services.
"Thank you Canada; thank you Edmonton," she said as she slowly removed her glasses to wipe away tears.
The private sponsorship of refugees program was established by the federal government in 1979 to allow Canadians to become directly involved in helping refugees find hope and freedom in Canada. With the program, organizations or smaller groups take responsibility for the financial and personal settlement of the refugees they sponsor.
"What struck us the most was their appreciation."
- Henry Heuver
Then Archbishop Joseph MacNeil considered how the Edmonton Archdiocese could help. He turned to his friend, Father Bill Irwin and CSS, and the archdiocese became one of the first sponsorship agreement holders in the country.
"I remember there were a lot of people coming into Canada and there was no vehicle to welcome them," MacNeil said.
"The federal government had recently established this kind of private sponsorship to recognize organizations like the archdiocese to allow parishes and families, under the canopy of our signing with the federal government, to sponsor these people. Through Father Bill, Alice Colak and Catholic Social Services, it worked out very well."
"It was a remarkable time in our community with the spirit of generosity."
- Alice Colak
Good things happen
MacNeil said he wanted to see what the archdiocese could do and the sponsorship agreement would allow good things to happen. Under the agreement, a parish can undertake responsibility for a refugee family, usually for 12 months starting with their arrival. A parish committee would provide the cost of food, rent, household utilities and other day-to-day living expenses. It would locate an interpreter, a family physician, clothing and furniture.
Helping with health care applications, inclusion into a familiar community, orientation with banking services and school enrollment are other sponsor obligations.
The 3,000 refugees sponsored by local parishes have come from 40 countries, beginning with the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian "boat people."
It is estimated there are now 19 million refugees world-wide.
"Father Bill was wonderful because he was active in helping people in so many ways," MacNeil said.
"For me, this was an obvious extension of the service he was giving to people throughout the diocese and in a sense, the rest of the world. He was very supportive and gung-ho."
Colak, director of immigration and settlement services for CSS, said thousands of people became involved.
"There was a deeply felt gratitude by the refugees for saving their lives," she said. "It was a remarkable time in our community with the spirit of generosity. The people were grateful the moment they arrived. The community gave them a new lease on life."
Colak recalls an information gathering session in 1978 organized by CSS and the Social Justice Commission at St. Michael-Resurrection Parish where 200 people attended. A month later at St. Clare Parish, 100 people came out. Colak has files containing notes on several such meetings. The response to the plight the refugees were facing was enormous.
"Father Bill and I worked closely with the parishes trying to mobilize the religious community. It didn't take much effort because it spread like wildfire."
It was an amazing time for Colak. It was a tragic situation but also a wonderful experience for her.
"The Catholic parishes and the religious community were so involved. There were also many ecumenical committees trying to get furniture, clothing and collecting money. And it worked," she said.
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