Vietnamese boat people on a grim journey to Ireland 36 years ago
Great escape: ‘We didn’t come here for economic reasons in 1979, we came for freedom’
Over bowls of pho at his family’s Vietnamese restaurant in Dublin, Tri Quoc Nguyen is talking about the year that took him from a flimsy boat in the South China Sea to a refugee camp in Malaysia and, eventually, to Tralee.
The restaurant is Pho Viet on Parnell Street, and his wife Tuyet “Snow” Thi Ngoc Pham is the chef. Their daughter Kim (21), the eldest of five, is busy working behind the bar.
In 1979, when he was 13, Tri fled from Vietnam with his parents and six siblings.
After the communist takeover in 1975, Tri’s father, a former South Vietnamese soldier, feared for his life. He had already been imprisoned in a “re-education camp” following the end of the Vietnam War.
“My father had to go. If he got caught again, they wouldn’t let him live, that’s for sure,” Tri says.
The family boarded a small boat for the harrowing sea crossing to a Malaysian refugee camp. Tri’s mother, Ba Thi Bui, says she was 99 per cent certain they would not survive the journey.
Tri says his father wanted to go to the US, but the process would have taken years. When an Irish delegation came to the camp in Malaysia, his family jumped at the chance to live in a country they knew almost nothing about.
“We didn’t come here for a better life or for economic reasons, because in 1979 Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. We came for freedom,” says Tri.
“My father just wanted to escape from Vietnam. Not to make a fortune, he just wanted to live in a decent human environment.”
In 1979 the Irish government agreed, after being asked repeatedly by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to take in about 200 so-called “boat people” from Vietnam.
They were temporarily settled in Blanchardstown Hospital and by the Christian Brothers in Swords, where they were taught some English before being relocated across the country to prevent ghettoisation. The byproduct was social isolation.
She was still “very happy” to be in Ireland and says the difference between life in Vietnam and life here was like “one to 100”.
Like many of the boat people, the family soon moved back to Dublin and started a food business.
Tri’s friend Sanh Ngoc Nguyen came to Ireland from a refugee camp in Hong Kong, alone, aged 30.
He had served in the South Vietnamese army before joining the People’s Army of Vietnam during its border war with China, to avoid persecution.
Still in the army, he fled from Vietnam with ethnic Chinese refugees, who were also clamouring to escape.
When he got to Hong Kong, he remembers reading a magazine article about Ireland.
“They say about Ireland: neutral country, the people are very kind, only 3.5 million people. This is the country I wanted to come to,” he said.
Once here, he was sent to Blanchardstown, then Sligo, where he opened a jewellery shop and kung fu school.
“Of course it was difficult. First, the language. The culture [was] different, food [was] different . . . We try to look after family, trying to do business and trying to settle to life. It’s more difficult because the language is a problem.”
After several years he moved back to Dublin to be with the Vietnamese community. He says that, after raising a family of six here with his Chinese-Vietnamese partner, he feels Irish.
More than 1,800 migrants are believed to have died in the Mediterranean so far this year.
While Ireland has committed to resettling an extra 300 migrants over the next two years, the Government is deciding whether to opt in to a relocation plan proposed by the European Commission.
“Ireland refused three times to resettle the Vietnamese refugees, so we haven’t gotten any better,” says Mark Maguire, head of Maynooth University’s department of anthropology.
He spent a year and a half with the “boat people” while researching his 2004 book, Differently Irish: A Cultural History Exploring 25 Years of Vietnamese-Irish Identity.
Tri thinks people in the West misunderstand the reasons migrants leave their countries.
“A lot of people think that refugees flee their own countries for economic reasons. [That’s] not true . . . They don’t know what happened back in their homeland. They live under constant fear. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You make a wrong move, you might get persecuted, you never know.”
He says the only Irish people who could understand the pain and suffering of a migrant journey fuelled by desperation are those who left on coffin ships during the Famine.