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Tsunami Relief and the Vietnamese Community

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Washington Area Vietnamese Support Victims

 The worst natural disaster in living memory with over 220,000 killed, the Asian Tsunami has evoked a powerful response from Washington-area Vietnamese-Americans. They have joined with the many international aid workers, medical professionals, and other disaster specialists who are bringing assistance to the victims.

The disaster has made a special impression on the Vietnamese, who remember vividly their own ordeals in the late 1970s, when they found themselves in situations like those of today’s victims. Hundreds of thousands of “boat people” from Vietnam sought asylum in Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Filipino refugee camps. For nearly two decades, these Asian countries opened their arms and provided shelter and food to sustain the boat refugees until they could migrate to other countries. Some Vietnamese even stayed on in these host countries and found work and a new way of life.
Minh Tran, a former refugee, recalled, “I am very grateful to the Indonesian government and people. When my family and I drifted into their country as “boat people” in 1978, we were welcome for the many long months it took us to be resettled in our new country. I am so grateful for their hospitality and now it’s my turn. I want to repay them by contributing as much as I can afford to the Tsunami victims and by getting my family and friends to respond to their plight. Many of us have been pouring into churches and Buddhist temples to pray for those caught in this calamity.”
Through word of mouth and the media, Vietnamese have spontaneously called on their compatriots to donate money for the families of the dead and homeless. On the first day of the year, the Vietnamese Community of Washington, Virginia and Maryland (VNC), a non-profit organization concerned with the welfare and rights of the Vietnamese in the capital region, sent members armed with large boxes to collect money at the Eden Center, the large Vietnamese shopping mall in Falls Church, Virginia.
“The VNC’s goal was to collect $10,000 in two weeks,” said Executive Director Tan Nguyen. “Our people are generous, and I am proud to say that we have already surpassed our goal. Now, we want to double that amount over two more weeks by using a “golden book” to solicit money from area businesses. We will also put a box at the Fortune restaurant at Seven Corners, and the Saigon House restaurant in Loehmann’s Plaza. We plan to invite Richard Gardner, the mayor of Falls Church City, to witness the handing over of our check to the director of the Fairfax chapter of the American Red Cross.”
There has been more. On January 3, at the annual Lunar New Year luncheon of the 1,000-member Vietnamese National Institute of Administration Alumni (VNIAA), organizers Le Huu Em and Huong Hoa called on the two hundred invited guests to open their pocket books. Dr. Khi Nguyen of Florida started the ball rolling with a generous check and the money poured forth. Nearly $5,000 was raised for the Tsunami cause.
Mr. Ha Binh Trung, president of the Vietnamese Senior Citizens Association (VSCA), also urged his members to give freely. Some older Vietnamese donated part of their monthly social security income as a way of saying thank you to countries that gave them safe haven in their time of need. VSCA’s fund-raising will continue at its annual Tet (Lunar New Year) Fair in early February at T.C. Williams School, where some 2,000 people are expected to come for Vietnamese food and crafts.
The Gia Long High School Alumnae, graduates of the most prestigious girls’ school in Vietnam, were also involved in Tsunami assistance, organizing a show at Saigon House for 400 guests. Arts and music professor Kim Oanh choreographed folkloric dances. The Gia Long women and other associations, such as Boat People SOS, as well as a number of individuals were also planning long-term projects to assist in the reconstruction of countries hit by the catastrophe.

From Afar

Vietnamese from elsewhere were also involved. In Canada, the most venerable Thich Nguyen Thao, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, sold his pagoda to help Tsunami sufferers. “At first many Buddhists were against my decision,” he said, “but everyone was happy when a generous Vietnamese bought the temple for half a million dollars. I donated all the money to the Canadian Red Crescent in the first wave of contributions.”
In Orange County, California, Little Saigon Radio quickly raised $640,000 from Vietnamese who called in pledge, and the funds have already been sent to the American Red Cross. Another group, the Vietnamese Buddhist Families, raised funds by attracting 1,000 spectators to watch 150 Vietnamese volunteer singers and dancers perform in California. Lee Sandwiches provided 500 sandwiches free of charge and Café Orsieni gave free drinks. Other Vietnamese groups arranged a walkathon and a candlelight vigil to collect money.
In Houston, in response to the President’s “Bush-Clinton Fund” initiative, the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinity (VNCH) and over 40 other organizations, media and religious groups, organized a walkathon that drew over 5,000 participants. The Anthropology Student Association (ASA) and the Vietnamese Students Society (VSS) contributed to the relief effort with a bake sale.
In Sidney, Quan Luu, the Vietnamese-Australian director of SBS (Special Broadcasting Services Corp.) Radio, held an appeal in 20 languages. Quan said the response was overwhelming, with 10,000 listeners pledging over $ 1 million Australian dollars. The Vietnam-Australian Buddhist Assistance Trust (VABAT) also joined in the appeal for donations, and a walkathon collected another $400,000.
The Tsunami’s timing has led many to ask how such a tragedy could have occurred the day after Christmas. Religious leaders have tried to reconcile the cataclysm with their belief in a benevolent God. In the meantime, the higher the number of casualties climbs, the more steadfastly Vietnamese join others around the world in opening their hearts and pocket books to the victims.