By Kevin Vuong
Two refugees, two different stories of escaping war, persecution, and tragedy. Their reasons for escape are the same – survival and hope. Hope for a better future in a far off utopian land that they would come to know was called Canada. To this day, the trauma stops one from talking about it. The other speaks about it as if it was yesterday.
One day into their voyage, the engine failed. A day later the boat began to leak. He came from a wealthy family but that didn’t matter anymore. In this world, it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. In this world no task was beneath you. Everyone bailed water and everything was shared. A bottle cap worth of water per day per person, that’s all they had.
“They’ll drown if I don’t pull them close to shore!” Belinda won’t share much, “I forget most of it” she says. When prodded further, she talks about how she was lucky to be overlooked by pirates among the crowd of refugees huddled together on her ship. “I was lucky” she says again, explaining how she and her shipmates were saved by the Captain of a fishing boat two days after running out of food and water. The crew “was not nice, but the Captain was and he kept us safe (from them)”. If he did not pull us close to shore, “I wouldn’t have made it… I didn’t know how to swim” she confesses.
That’s all Belinda would tell me. To this day, she refuses to eat egg noodles because it reminds her of the instant noodles they ate daily at the refugee camp.
Ken was more willing to share, proud that he was able to survive against all odds the journey to the utopia that he now calls home. He recalls hiding from the soldiers under canoes before being smuggled to the islands to wait for a larger ship. This ship was to take him to the American warships that everyone said was in international waters waiting to rescue you. Hiding in the mountains to avoid military patrols, when the ship finally arrived, Ken found that it was more a boat built for the river than a ship to traverse the vast Indian Ocean. What choice did he have?
Ten times he and his shipmates were attacked by pirates. First they took what little valuables they had. Next, they began abducting people. Wives were taken from their husbands; sisters from their families. He still wonders about the three women who were taken away, where are they now? Are they still alive? When Ken finally made it to Thailand, he was one of the first to enter a newly established refugee camp that would come to later house over 20,000 refugees. It was there that he met Belinda, but that’s a story for another time.
My name is Kevin Vuong, and Belinda “Ngoc Be Vuong” and Ken “Phuoc-Thanh Vuong” are my parents, so too is Canada. While my parents provided me with the means and support, Canada provided me with the opportunity for education and success. As Belinda tutored me in math and science, Canada gave me the chance to think creatively. Where Ken taught me discipline, Canada provided the freedom to question.
Confucian tradition states that being a filial son is the uppermost duty of any son. As a Canadian of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, it is my filial duty to reciprocate the care and support that my parents offered me. Today, I am a former banker turned social innovator supporting our most vulnerable communities who face barriers to employment not too unlike my parents when they first came to Canada. My mother who was training to become a doctor became an electrician; while my father, an entrepreneur and business owner, became a chef.
I also have a second career in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a military officer and naval reservist at Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship YORK. In the CAF, we are guided by the three principles of ‘Respect the Dignity of All Persons’, ‘Serve Canada before Self’, and ‘Obey and Support Lawful Authority’. I aspire to live these principles in my military, professional, and community work each and every day, so that I may serve and give back to the country that has given my family among many other families so much. By doing so, I hope to pave the way for future generations as it appears that unfortunately history is repeating itself.
The world is at another crossroads on what to do in the face of massive population displacement from war, famine, and tragedy. Again, Canada has chosen to take the harder path with respect to the Syrian crisis, but it is a journey that we have taken before. We are taking the same path that welcomed Belinda and Ken into this amazing country over three decades ago.
Yes, there are dissenting voices like there was back then. Yes, it will take hard work. And yes, it will not be easy, but we know from experience that our country will be better for it. In 51 years at Canada’s bicentennial, this story could very well be written by one of the children of the 25,000 Syrian Refugees we had welcomed to Canada earlier this year.
On behalf of my future 77-year-old self, I can tell you that I cannot wait to read it.