Jackie Bong Wright

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From Vietnam Refugees in Biloxi to Katrina Evacuees in Virginia

By Jackie Bong-Wright

A Devastated Fishing Community

As water, oil, cars, animals, corpses and debris flooded the streets of New Orleans in Louisiana and Biloxi in Mississipi, 20 former Vietnamese “boat people” refugees poured into the house of Lieu Pham in Falls Church, Virginia. Their families had fled Communist Vietnam in the 1990s and spent years in refugee camps in Southeast Asia before re-settling in the U.S. Last week, they fled one more time, leaving their own comfortable life in Biloxi and taking refuge first in Atlanta, then in the Washington area.
Xe Pham, 59, is Lieu Pham’s brother. A fisherman from Rach Gia, Vietnam, he settled in the Gulf Coast city of Biloxi in 1981 with his wife. Their two sons are now 14 and 15. Xe works for another Vietnamese who owns a large boat that fishes the open sea until its huge ice storage area is full. The men sell their shrimp and other fish to a seafood distributor in their town. Each sortie lasts three to five weeks, after which they go home for a couple of days of rest. This has been the routine for Xe for the past 24 years.
Biloxi is home to over 20,000 hard-working Vietnamese, Xe said. They live exactly like they do in Vietnam, speaking Vietnamese, eating Vietnamese food, wearing Vietnamese clothes. Vietnamese restaurants, shops, beauty salons, and grocery stores cater to the Vietnamese population’s needs. Houses are four times cheaper than the average in the capital, Xe claims, and life is much easier and simpler to manage.
Fishing has been Xe’s life since he was a teenager, though he was a Marine for six years in the Vietnam War and spent six months in a Communist jail in 1975 after U.S. troops left Vietnam. But even that, he says, did not prepare him for the shock of Katrina. The fury of the hurricane forced him and his family to take refuge with a friend who lived in a housing complex a few miles away. But the water there started to mount, reaching the ceiling and threatening to devour them. For days, they lived in a state of suspense, breathless and fearing for their lives.
Fortunately, the water subsided and started to seep underground on August 30. Ignoring warnings of danger, Xe and his neighbors braved the high winds and returned to their town, only to find their homes totally destroyed, splintered into unrecognizable pieces. A rice cooker and a family photo were all they could identify. Steps away, broken trees were piled on wrecked cars, and dead dogs and cats slept peacefully next to children’s toys. The metal boxes that held their documents, jewelry and cash were gone with the wind.
There was no more gasoline for their car, and nothing to eat, drink, or keep themselves covered. They walked to a nearby Vietnamese Buddhist temple, and found nothing but a concrete foundation. Exhausted and dehydrated, they slept on the temple’s floor, without blankets, enduring the putrid odors of cadavers, feces, and gas.
Xe’s sister Lieu came to his rescue. On September 3, she asked friends from Alanta to help. They drove down to pick up Xe’s family and take them to Atlanta, where Lieu met them and drove them to Virginia. Four families of Xe’s friends followed along.
The twenty of them ended up in a house in Falls Church Lieu had rented only two months before. They are able now to eat Vietnamese food and watch Vietnamese videos. Of course, they follow with intense interest the aftermath of Katrina’s ravages.

Taking Refuge in Virginia

Once the 20 evacuees arrived in Virginia, Lieu took them to the Red Cross. There they each received $300, the only help they have got so far from any agency. They also applied for food stamps and medicaid at the Department of Social Sevices. Meanwhile, Xe’s wife was taken to the hospital with dehydration, fever and pneumonia. Now released, she sleeps bundled up in a thick blanket on the floor of the empty dining room. Another of the group, Boul, 45, occupies the basement with his wife, a son, a daughter and a son-in-law and a year-and-a-half grand-daughter. The third family, comprising Chanh, his wife and their seven girls, have moved to a motel nearby. Cuong, a single man who waits tables in a noodle soup restaurant in Biloxi, joined them.
This has not been enough for the men. Desperate and destitude, lacking fluent English, the men wanted to go back to Biloxi, rebuild their homes, and return eventually to fishing. Said Xe, “I understand why people didn’t want to leave their homes. They felt attached to them.”
But the evacuees’wives, more practical, feel differently. They want time to adjust to their new environment, to settle down at least temporily. They want to put their children in school as soon as possible. They are still recovering, little by little, from their Mississipi nightmare.
The problem for Chanh’s family of nine is that it has been impossible to rent a house in the capital area without showing proof of a steady job and an income of four times the rent. Nonetheless, he and his wife say they feel lucky to be alive, having seen so many others perish, like the 7-year old Vietnamese girl who was reported raped in the Superdome and died thereafter.
Things have improved. Vietnamese hearts are opening up to the newcomers. The Phuong Nam troupe, friends of Lieu, invited the evacuees to dinner this past week-end and pledged to raise funds for them and other victims over the next two weeks with a music show at a local restaurant. Mr. Ly Hien Tai from Baltimore was ready to contribute. “It’s our duty to extend a helping hand to the Vietnamese evacuees.”
Others are helping as well. Rev. Van Dam, head of the Buddhist Amanda Meditation Institute in Falls Church, has already raised funds at his pagoda, and has visited the evacuees to assess their situation. Vietnamese churches have called on their members to sponsor several Catholic families from Louisiana. The National Institute of Administration Alumni, headed by Mr. Huong Hoa, has raised funds from their members. They plan to visit the Biloxi evacuees soon. The Gia Long Girl School Alumni also chipped their part in. Many Vietnamese, both individuals and groups, have already sent in large donations to the Red Cross and other charitable institutions. Some have volunteered to work as interpreters in Houston, Baton Rouge, Mobile, and even as far away as California. Vietnamese journalists, singers, and businessmen have travelled on their own to the stricken areas to do what they can to alleviate the worst human devastation in the history of the United States. Overall, Vietnamese have raised over a hundred thousand dollars in cash and kind to help the evacuees.