Asian Heritage Month: Journey to Freedom

Ho Mai Linh’s “Uncle 15” (Sky Raider pilot) kneels in the front row, second from the right.

Ho Mai Linh’s “Uncle 15” (Sky Raider pilot) kneels in the front row, second from the right.

Ho Mai Linh, BIS ~

On April 13, 2015, an Act titled the Journey to Freedom Day was passed in the House of Commons and given Royal Assent on April 30, 2015. It recognizes the plight of the Vietnamese people and their efforts to be settled in Canada following the Vietnam conflict of 1959-1975. Upwards of six million people were displaced with the creation of a Communist state, the merging of North and South Vietnam, and the implementation of Vietnamese Communist policies and international economic sanctions.

This act identifies every April 30 as the Journey to Freedom Day of the 60,000 people who sought refuge from war and oppression, and were accepted by Canada and Canadians. It is the start of Asian Heritage Month of May.

My family and I are some of those “Boat People” and this is my story.

This is an expression of my appreciation to the Act that recognized our struggles, and the compassion Canada showed to thousands of migrants seeking freedom and hope for a better life, escaping war and prosecution.

Prior to April 30, 1975 – the official end of the Vietnam War
Our family lived a comfortable life despite the ongoing conflict with the likes of the Tet offensive in 1968, occasional grenade attacks at the market square, the mortar showers, and light AK gunfire at the check points emanating from the Viet Cong (Communist Forces) who wanted to create one Vietnam.

Thinking back to Saigon, my paternal grandparents had a successful business that provided us all the comforts of life, which included living in a four-story 3,000 square meter building in district one, in downtown Saigon, where we lived with my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. It had a huge second floor open-air terrace that we all enjoyed. It was here that I heard the sound of the squadrons of Hughes helicopters flying overhead, the repeated thud-thud song that punctuated the air as I woke to greet each day.

During the fall of Saigon, I asked my mom why we were not on those helicopters and ships that were extracting people from the south. I also asked her where was father?

I remember my mother explaining to me, a child of seven, this is our country and we should stay to make it better. She said this knowing the school instructed the children to inform on their family’s activities.

Little did I know at the time that my father, who had been in Hong Kong, had made his way back to Saigon to get us out of the country. He had purchased a boat with friends and planned to get all our families safely to Malaysia or Thailand. Cross country routes through Cambodia were considered, but with many young children in the group, they were not ideal.

When I think back on all of it, nothing in that situation was ideal.

Clockwise: Ho Mai Linh’s mother (in the red top), cousin Chau, Ho Mai Linh, cousin Thuy, cousin Chuong, Uncle #15, Aunt #4, Aunt #16, and Ho Mai Linh’s brother and father in Windsor.

Clockwise: Ho Mai Linh’s mother (in the red top), cousin Chau, Ho Mai Linh, cousin Thuy, cousin Chuong, Uncle #15, Aunt #4, Aunt #16, and Ho Mai Linh’s brother and father in Windsor.

Heading to freedom – try number one
A lot of people crammed into the small fishing boat and we set off on our first attempt to freedom May 2, 1975. Nature’s fate would determine it was not yet our time to leave by unleashing a tropical storm. I remember sleeping on deck with everyone around me, and then hard rain pelting down on me.

The captain steered the ship into the waves and I was bouncing off the deck every time the boat hit the wave’s crest. I thought for sure the next wave would wash me over the side into the dark ocean.

I saw my dad standing at the cabin’s door waving me towards him; so I crawled and bounced against the deck until he caught me and pulled me in. For three days, we were lost in the storm. It eventually blew us further up the coast.

Luckily, we were able to sight the shore and head towards land. However, we ended up in a development camp set up to reprogram southern Vietnamese people in the way of the Communist regime.

Success finally arrives
Over the next three years and 13 unsuccessful attempts to leave, we were able to escape on the fifteenth try.

Somehow I knew this time would be successful as I rode in the back of a sedan, staring at the starry sky as we travelled toward our boat to freedom. It could have been because this time the whole family was together, including my seven-month-old baby brother. I’m not sure how my mom kept him quiet while we snuck past the North Vietnamese Army, local police, and informers, but we managed to leave the dock without notice.

This freedom attempt was not without peril.

On the way out, and still in sight of the shore, the boat struck a sand bar. Every able young man quietly slipped into the water and helped free the boat. The collision left a gaping hole in the hull, and for the rest of the trip the men continuously baled water with a pail – except for when a pirate ship caught up to us (and that is another story!) Pirates in the South China Sea were a significant threat to the Vietnamese Boat People.

Eventually, we made landfall on Malaysian shores where my father and some shipmates walked to a convenience store to contact the local authorities. We waited for a while and then trucks came and transported us to a refugee camp. When we arrived, there was a long house that was home to 60 people or so.

My father was nominated from the group to be the leader as he could speak English, French, some Cantonese and Vietnamese. He led the camp for about a year, which grew to accommodate over 4,000 refugees. Many countries came to the aid of the Vietnamese refugees and my father chose for us to come to Canada. We were privately sponsored by an Italian church group from Windsor, Ontario.

Heading to Canada
The flight to freedom took us from Kuala Lumpur to Brussels, where we met my uncle who was an international student when Saigon fell, then on to Montreal and ending in Windsor. My family and I spent two years in Windsor. It was there where my brother and I learned English and where my parents were able to keep us all healthy and happy.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Canada experienced an economic down-turn and my father was unable to find a good paying job in southern Ontario; so the family was on the move again, this time, to the Yukon.

He took every menial job imaginable to provide food and shelter for us. Slowly, we acclimated to the weather, the people and the community.

My father carved out a business of his own and paid off the loans to the Canadian government for the many flights and hotel costs.

He did the impossible with a lot of help, but what stands out is the feat to move us safely to Canada, and raise a family at 36 years of age with nothing but his two hands. He instilled in his children that if you want to eat then you have to work. He is the greatest person I know and will ever know.

A love of Canada
I am very grateful for all the opportunities that Canada affords me, and to all refugees, but most of all, a safe place to grow and prosper.

I remember that day in 1978 like it was yesterday, while watching the TV in the refugee camp the PA came on and announced we were heading to Canada. Then and now, I feel like I won life’s lottery.

In 1986, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees presented the Nansen Refugee Award to the ‘People of Canada’ “…in recognition of their essential and constant contribution to the cause of refugees within their country and around the world.”

The Journey to Freedom Day Act also recognizes Canada’s contribution in helping people like me, and many others who work in the Department of National Defence, both here in Esquimalt and at many other bases, wings or garrison’s or at National Defence Headquarters, to achieve prosperity and hope for a better future.

May is Asian Heritage Month and I ask you to help us celebrate our heritage as we move Canada forward to help build a more prosperous nation, forged on our collective pasts.

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