My Facebook News Feed has been flooded with news about the Essex Tragedy, from stories of suspected victims, stories of the tragedy itself, as well as the Catholic perspective on the story itself, to the point that even this tragedy has a reflective story on the Vietnamese Vatican News site. As a son of a Vietnamese refugee, and a first-generation Vietnamese-Canada, I reflect on this recent tragedy, even as news about its victims continue to unfold rapidly on the media.
I only learned about the tragic death of 39 people found in a refrigerated container two days after the terrible discovery was made. I kept the victims in my thoughts and prayers throughout the day but did not have much thought about their ethnicity, or where they came from. News about migrant and refugee deaths on the journey to seek liberation has been on the news in recent years, particularly in Syria and the Middle East, so such tragic news was not of surprise to me.
However, the past days, it has struck me that a majority of those people on that truck were people from Vietnam, people of the same ethnicity as my family and I. I have been surrounded by Vietnamese people for my whole life. I have Vietnamese friends, I participate in activities within the Vietnamese community, I have been a student of the Vietnamese International Languages Program of the Toronto Catholic District School Board. While I am a first generation Vietnamese Canadian within the family, I am very much rooted in the Vietnamese culture.
The people of Vietnam have faced much persecution throughout the centuries, speaking from both a religious and human right perspective. Particularly, the Vietnam War (1955-1975) saw a country torn by war, divided in morals and very restricted in religious freedom. From a the perspective of Catholic history in Vietnam, many activities were put “on hold”, from seminaries being closed, clergy not allowed to exercise their ministry, etc. The rise of communism also jeopardized human rights of the people in Vietnam. It is for that reason that since 1975, with the Fall of Saigon, people fled out of Vietnam to seek freedom, to seek a life where they would be free to exercise their human rights and religious freedom.
The story of the Vietnamese Boat People is very much comparable to the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites fled Egypt so to seek a brighter future for their families, and that they would be able to worship the One True God without oppression (see Book of Exodus). The Exodus of the Vietnamese people saw millions of Vietnamese people, including Catholics (including clergy) from 1975 up to early 1990s, fleeing Vietnam by fishing boats to reach refugee camps. From there, many people found refuge all over the world, including Canada, the United States of America, France, Australia, etc. Today, Vietnamese people are present all throughout the world, bringing with them their language, culture and traditions. I understand this story because my father was one of the millions of Vietnamese Boat People. I am surrounded within the Vietnamese community by many, many people who share similar story lines as my dad. I am in Toronto, Canada today, graduated with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma, and currently undergoing studies at the University of Toronto today because my father took the risk to step on a fishing boat, spending several years at a refugee camp and welcomed by Canada in the 1980s. He, along with many others envisioned a brighter future which thankfully, worked out for them.
Unfortunately, not every one of the Vietnamese Boat People had a happy ending like that of my father and uncle. On my mother’s side, one of her brothers was brought back home dead in an attempt to escape. Some died at refugee camps, some were denied entry to any other country and forced to go back to Vietnam, possibly facing imprisonment and some, out of hate of the state of the country committed suicide because they did not want to go back.
I was surprised, haunted and saddened to learn of the tragedy in Essex. I was surprised that decades after the Vietnam war, in 2019, there are still Vietnamese “boat people” in a metaphorical, 21st century definition. I was haunted, not only because that (some) people found and opened a container with 39 life-less people with barely any clothing, who froze to death, but the fact that other people were willing to treat other people as cargo, as shipment, as mere objects was haunting. This story was obviously saddening because this is a death of 39 people, many suspected victims of whom were still so young, around the age that my father and uncle “vượt biên”. Some so far, have been said to be as young as 19, an age where people would hold in themselves so many dreams waiting to be fulfilled. While young people in Canada may be dreaming of getting their hands on a new iPhone 11, or Google Pixel 4, these young people had dreams of seeking freedom. They desired a life in which they could be authentically “free”, pursuing a career that would allow them to help not only themselves and their families.
The day that these 39 people spent thousands of dollars to embark on a Journey to Freedom, their journey became a Journey to “Freedom”. I think that little did they know, the moment they stepped onto that cargo container did they see death in front of them, rather than the freedom that they were hoping for. I cannot help but think of stories of the Holocaust, where people were stuffed into the gas chamber where they were “gassed” to death. I could not help but think of this image when I read of the last text a girl sent to her parents, “I can’t breathe” and the x-ray image of victims, as it passed through customs, striving to breathe.
I often end these sort of reflections by asking us to pray for the victims of such a tragedy. However, I do not think prayer is enough. We must take action to ensure that such events never happen again. Let us defend the dignity of the human person, defending human rights in the spirit of the Gospel. We can do this in a variety of means, on social media, joining peaceful protests, petitions asking the government to show concern towards the issue of human rights, and migrants and refugees, or joining a school Social Justice or Human Rights club. We must not be silent. We are privileged to live in a country where we do not to be constantly worried about our rights and freedoms. It is for that reason that we must be the voice for the voiceless.