The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine has motivated countless individuals and organizations across Canada to take action.
UNHCR has been inspired by the incredible generosity of supporters who have worked to raise funds and awareness to support millions in Ukraine whose lives have been uprooted since the start of the war.
Members of British Columbia’s Vietnamese community joined forces to mobilize through eight community organizations to raise nearly $144,000 through outreach and community engagement. Among them are former Vietnamese refugees who came by boat to Canada more than four decades ago and had been the recipients of UNHCR aid. They are now reciprocating the generosity shown to them.
Originally from Hanoi, Vietnam, Angela, a 58-year-old business owner, now lives in Burnaby, B.C.
“Thirty-nine years ago, our family escaped from Việt Nam by boat. We lost everything. Our boat was sinking in the ocean. We were cold, hungry, afraid, and disappointed. We couldn’t do anything but hope and wait for a miracle happen; wishing for help to come.”
She arrived in Canada in April, 1987. “We were sponsored to Canada from a local church. When we arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, I saw a beautiful town with friendly and warm church people.”
“I was very shy to speak English with other people. I remember my first job at a big bakery factory, joining when I had no previous experience. I would catch three different buses to work in the early cold morning. It was not fun and easy at all.”
What inspired her to want to help raise funds in support of UNHCR’s response to the Ukraine emergency? “Thinking about myself when I was in a refugee camp and coming to Canada, I wanted to help.”
“From my parents, I know the entire story of the escape from Vietnam by boat, the journey across the sea, the temporary three-month stay on Pulau Bidong refugee camp and eventual resettlement in Canada,” recalled Andy, a 46-year-old Vancouver-based Vice-President at a Real-Estate Investment and Management Firm and part-time radio host, originally from Saigon.
He rembers attending daycare at a local church in Portage La Prairie, and his first days of kindergarten and Grade 1 at Queen Elizabeth School where he attended kindergarten before the family moved to Vancouver.
“My mother was a teacher in Vietnam and my father an architect. They found it was impossible to return to their professions without one, getting re-educated and two, moving to a larger city. Of course, language was a barrier but my parents both had educations in Vietnam so that helped.”
Andy says his own experiences being raised in a refugee family, and his own understanding of the difficult lives Vietnamese refugees have had trying to establish themselves in Canada and elsewhere around the world compels and inspires him to help refugees.
“No one wants to be a refugee but if you are unlucky to be one then you know it is hard.”
“Leaving your country and restarting with nothing is difficult. To be able to get back to the same standard of living you (in this case my parents) had in Vietnam took many years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Ukrainians became refugees through no fault of their own. They have faced and will face many hardships. Any help they can get from UNHCR or any other organizations will go a long way to helping them to get back to the quality of life they once knew. Even then some will not make it. It’s extremely unfair. So, if you have the capacity to help them you should do it,” says Andy.
Currently living in Burnaby, B.C., Philip originally came from Saigon, Vietnam. Now 66, he pastors the Vietnamese Baptist Church, and owns the Davie Art Shop in Vancouver which he has operated for more than 35 years.
He was 19 when he arrived with his brother in Vancouver as a refugee, after 17 days at sea fleeing Saigon. “In the early days when I arrived in Vancouver, I was a little bit worried about where to buy rice or what was happening to my family left behind. How can they survive after war? I could not contact or even send letters to my family. I helped my friends to fill out forms to apply for schooling. The government helped us a lot at the beginning to settle and start a new life in Canada”.
What compelled him to help raise funds for Ukrainian refugees?
“I admire UNHCR – you have the best way to help people. I trust this organization.”
Amelie is co-founder of Anh and Chi, an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant based in Vancouver. Since December 2020, when local charities in Vancouver that support the most marginalized populations were suffering from unstable funding and support because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anh and Chi established one of the very first Reservation by Donation programs in the city. Through this initiative, and together with a match from Anh and Chi, they have raised $21,850 to date
Amelie was just two months old when she arrived in Canada on May 11, 1980, along with her parents and two young boy cousins who were transferred to Vancouver where her parents resettled.
“They did whatever odd jobs they could find. My dad was a dishwasher and pizza delivery driver. My mom eventually worked in a bakery factory,” she recalled. “On the weekends, they would visit with other Vietnamese people newly settled at the refugee centre, where they shared a longing for the smell, taste and feeling of home. So, my mom started cooking Pho, a dish that my maternal grandmother used to cook to raise her family.”
Her parents served pho in their rental suite off Kingsway Street in Vancouver, and eventually saved up enough money to create the iconic noodle shop in the 1980s-90s named Pho Hoang.
Adjusting to life in a new country came with its share of challenges.
“My parents were very poor when they arrived in Canada. All their savings were used for the boat ride out of Vietnam and anything they carried was taken by pirates at sea. My mom did have one small diamond she had hidden in one of her oral crowns, but aside from that, they had no money. Mom remembered being in the Malaysian refugee camp and seeing some tiny apples that she could not afford to buy to eat, even while seven months pregnant with me. Even during their first few years in Vancouver, my dad would buy chicken bone – the cheap spine area – for my mom to marinate and fry, and that was one of their best meals. They had to prioritize work or childminding, and couldn’t complete their English classes, so till today (42 years later), my mom speaks broken English and needs us to interpret during medical appointments.”
But Amelie notes, “challenges in life – like the refugee experience – also come with compassion, wisdom and perseverance. My parents demonstrated to us (three children including me) the values of hard work, family first, and gratitude. They showed it by taking care of their own family, their team at the restaurant, and the greater community at large. I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for them going through hardship and that makes me want to, need to, hustle and make sure I work hard and contribute to my family and society… I want to appreciate them and build upon what they have created for us. They gave us the freedom to choose an education, to travel, to do whatever we like. They did not have a choice then, but they did everything to give us ours.”
Today, Amelie’s sister Angela Nguyen practices dentistry in Melbourne, Australia and her brother Vincent Nguyen, leads the highly acclaimed Anh and Chi restaurant in Vancouver.
Like many others, Amelie said she was feeling helpless for Ukraine. Her father’s best friend from Lac Viet Radio reached out and asked if she could join to help raise funds.
“We were once refugees having to flee for survival and freedom, so if we can, in whatever capacity, we want to pay it forward. The UNHCR has helped many Vietnamese families, including ours, and we want to be a part of your mission,” she says.
“I am really honoured to be a part of BC’s Vietnamese community, and a Canadian. It was incredible that a few of us, literally a handful of us, got together and threw a fundraiser in just under two weeks, and after a month, we had raised over $143,000 for Ukrainians through UNHCR Canada. I learned so much from our Vietnamese elders, their grassroots passion and drive, it was humbling.”
“I have learned that we can create something incredible, even in the most challenging times”.
Inspired to fundraise for UNHCR? Sign up for your own fundraiser here.