“It was really, really scary in the beginning,” said Tam Nguyen, who arrived in Canada from Vietnam as a refugee in 1980. He was one of the so-called “boat people,” or the refugees that left Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. Nguyen had been drafted into the Vietnamese Army, but deserted and left his family behind when he found that he was going to be deployed against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He knew that he had to “get up and find a family, get a better life” than what he faced in Vietnam, where “no child played in war country.”
“I saw people die behind me,” he described. “My friend stepped on a land mine and had his legs blown off.” He and his friends did not have toys; all they had were bullets that they would cut apart and use to light up the night sky. Their soccer balls were made of banana leaves.
Nguyen left Vietnam on a tiny boat, only 2 by 10 meters. Eventually he was resettled in Winnipeg. He had been a tailor in Vietnam, so in 1986, after saving up enough money, Nguyen bought a tailor shop that he now proudly describes as “serving the Hollywood stars,” with actors like Brian Dennehy, Samuel Jackson, and LeVar Burton coming by his shop when they were in Winnipeg for movie shoots.
It hadn’t always been easy for him in Winnipeg. Then he first arrived, the fledgling Vietnamese community was split between those who supported the new Communist government and those that supported the fallen Republic of Vietnam. These were men that “had too much politics in their hearts,” said Nguyen.
And this split between Vietnamese groups became especially controversial when Nguyen started a charity, Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam (CHKV), to send money back to Vietnam, which drew a backlash from those in the Vietnamese community who vehemently opposed the Communist government. As Nguyen put it, “I don’t like the Communists, but I still love my country, my family.” Nguyen did not want to get involved in politics. He just wanted to support his remaining family members in Vietnam and others that wanted to go to school. To date, CHKV had assisted over 250 families with $25 payments to assist with school fees, and had built nine schools throughout the country.
Nguyen saw the most recent group of refugees as just like them and tried to welcome them. He provided financial assistance for a Congolese family when they first arrived in Winnipeg, and he held a fundraiser at his newly-opened pho restaurant for the Salvation Army to raise money for refugee resettlement. He understood the newcomers, since “I help people because when I was in a boat I almost died.”
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