By Chanel Hung
More than 1 million people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War 35 years ago. Thousands died trying to escape the country via boat. Those who survived became refugees, most settling in North America, Europe and Australia.
The United States accepted 823,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to rebuild their lives.
In the face of struggles establishing a new life in a foreign land, Vietnamese Americans have rapidly built strong and resilient communities throughout the U.S.
One such community established itself in New Orleans.
Perhaps finding the tropical weather familiar to home, the Vietnamese found New Orleans a perfect place to settle. Even more, the Catholic community there sponsored many Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War. Most of the population became involved in the fishing and shrimping industries and through the years developed a thriving network that has come together, especially in the midst of disaster.
In Louisiana, there are about 25,000 Vietnamese Americans according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. Of those, 6,000 live in a concentrated area of New Orleans East. Roughly 80 percent of Vietnamese Americans in the Gulf region have ties to the fishing industry, whether it be as seafood restaurant owners, vendors, or fishermen.
These fishermen’s ties to the sea trace back to their roots, back to Vietnam, where many fishermen relied on the sea to fuel their livelihoods.
Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, leaving the region devastated physically and financially.
A public housing neighborhood named Versailles is home to many Vietnamese Americans on the outskirts of New Orleans. In the wake of the damage incurred, the Vietnamese community congregated to rebuild its existence. With little government funding, the community reconstructed Versailles faster than other neighborhoods in New Orleans. Then, the local government attempted to implement a landfill harboring toxic waste from the nearby hurricane. The community rallied together to protest against the city’s will, forming one voice to save their neighborhood.
Now, Vietnamese Americans dependent on the Gulf of Mexico for survival face another crisis. The British Petroleum oil spill that started in April and gushed for three months has left many out of work and with many bills to pay.
This time, recovery is uncertain.
Many Vietnamese Americans have lost their jobs now that fishing zones are restricted and there is no work available. Fishers are bringing in less than half the yield normally produced in the Gulf waters. Without jobs, the Vietnamese American community struggles to pay off mortgages and bills.
“Entire livelihoods are affected, and there may not be an immediate recovery due to the environmental impacts of the spill,” said Mai Phan, a Vietnamese lawyer who works with the Vietnamese American Bar Association’s efforts to help the New Orleans community.
But while many need assistance, few actively seek it, quite possibly due to cultural norms. Vietnamese Americans are self-driven hard workers and have always managed to rebuild from scratch. It is no surprise that they are a proud people. Accepting government-sponsored assistance is equivalent to accepting charity in a community that deems accepting handouts a sign of weakness.
Meanwhile, the legal fight with BP is another battle all its own. The lengthy and complex legal documents that are supposed to offer compensation for damages have proven to be tedious and unhelpful.
Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the older generation, are not fluent in English. With such a strong community and knowledge about their trade, English isn’t a necessity. This language barrier has hindered Vietnamese Americans in pursuit of filing claims against BP to gain compensation. Moreover, BP offers only about half the amount of revenue these fishermen would be earning if the Gulf were clean and healthy.
A gloomy future lies ahead for Vietnamese Americans in the Gulf region. Until BP successfully cleans up the spill, disastrous environmental and economic implications remain for those who rely on the sea to maintain their livelihoods.
For such a strong and hardworking community, idleness and powerlessness during BP’s inaction is painful. There is no doubt, however, that the Vietnamese people will pull through the oil crisis and become stronger than ever.