Members of the local Vietnamese community paid tribute to Prof. Howard Adelman for his leadership in bringing Vietnamese refugees to Canada, and to Holy Blossom Temple for its sponsorship role during the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis back in 1979.
More than 200 people from both communities gathered at Holy Blossom on Remembrance Day to celebrate the successful resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in Canada.
Adelman’s initiative led to the arrival of 60,000 refugees in this country. They were among the two million Indochinese people who fled Communist rule after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Ron Atkey, minister of immigration in 1979, said that just weeks after taking power, the Conservative government of Joe Clark committed to taking in 50,000 refugees through a matching program of public and private sponsorship. “It was so successful, the private sponsorships outnumbered the government [ones], and so we raised the quota to 60,000.”
That success can be traced to Operation Lifeline, a national campaign launched in the summer of 1979 by Adelman, then a York University philosophy professor. Operation Lifeline, which promoted the private sponsorship of Vietnamese families, helped resettle 30,000 refugees.
At the Holy Blossom event, the local Vietnamese community announced the establishment of a humanitarian award, the Thoi Bao Community Howard Adelman Award, in Adelman’s honour.
He said that on a night of remembrance, it was important to acknowledge the many refugees who died during the crisis. “At least 200,000 Vietnamese drowned at sea. That should not be forgotten.”
He was also quick to credit the efforts of other people who propelled the campaign forward. “I was one element of a big collective effort.”
He noted that under Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, Temple Emanu-El sponsored 100 refugees. Adelman also praised Atkey and his department for their support. “The leadership of the government made such a big difference.”
He said the two civil servants that Atkey sent to the first meeting of Operation Lifeline discreetly steered the group towards private sponsorship.
Sen. Ngo Thanh Hai, who was also a Vietnamese refugee, lauded the compassion of Canadians and stressed the need to help Syrian refugees.
In fact, Le Luong of VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment) said the Canadian group will be sponsoring four families. “We are paying it forward. We will carry your torch.”
Steven Garmaise, chair of JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Service) Toronto, said the agency is working closely with Operation Lifeline Syria. So far, 25 groups from the Jewish community are sponsoring 11 families.
Members from both communities shared their memories and their connection to Operation Lifeline in 1979. Dr. Khoi Nguyen recalled fleeing Vietnam on a boat struck by typhoons and pirates.
A highlight of the evening was hearing from Nam Nguyen, 17, the 2015 Canadian national male figure skating champion and son of a Vietnamese refugee. He said his father was an inspiration to him, and if he wins gold at the 2018 Olympics, he will dedicate his medal to the Jewish community.
Helen Poizner said: “Sponsoring the refugees was the best thing Temple Emanu-El ever did.”
David Hertzman was among 13 groups from Holy Blossom who sponsored 66 individuals. “Nobody felt heroic,” he said. “We were happy to help.”
Fred Zemans, a past president of the temple, accepted the award for Holy Blossom, presented by Kyanh Do, president of VOICE, Canada. “It was an incredible opportunity to deal with social justice,” Zemans said. “It is something built into our religion.”
His words echoed those of Rabbi Yael Splansky, senior rabbi of Holy Blossom. Looking out for the stranger and treating the stranger well is the commandment most repeated in the Torah, she said. “It is our sacred duty to do so joyfully. It is a sacred commandment done wholeheartedly.”