MONTREAL — Thi Be Nguyen feels she owes a debt to the Jewish community that she can never adequately repay. Living productively as a Canadian is the best way to demonstrate that the community’s investment of time, money and compassion were well placed, she thinks.
Nguyen was among the 60,000 South Asian “boat people” who found refuge in Canada after the fall of Saigon 40 years ago, which ended the Vietnam War but created a massive refugee crisis.
The Jewish community played a disproportionate role in Operation Lifeline, an unprecedented effort by ordinary Canadians to sponsor and quickly resettle as many refugees as possible, in co-operation with the federal government. Their desperate plight prompted an outpouring of sympathy across the country.
Nguyen was almost five when she arrived in Montreal with her parents and two young siblings in December 1979.
Now 40, married, and the mother of two with a career in the National Bank’s head office, Nguyen is taking the opportunity on this milestone anniversary to thank those strangers who opened their hearts and played a crucial role in her family’s integration into their new home.
On Aug. 30, the National Bank, at her initiative, is sponsoring a private event to recognize the people who helped the Nguyen and other families from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia make new lives in Quebec.
Jewish people were especially present in the Nguyens’ early years here, she said, although, of course, Nguyen, a Buddhist, would be much older before she realized what “Jewish” meant.
Two people, in particular, stood out and continue to be her and her family’s friends: volunteer Roz Abrahamson, who took them under her wing immediately after their arrival as one of their sponsors; and Steve Tabac, who met her father a couple of years later. The chartered accountant gave the family invaluable advice about buying a house and setting up a business.
Nguyen also remembers that she and her sister and brother spent their first summer at the YM-YWHA day camp, which was near their first home on Mountain Sights Avenue. She still knows some of the words to the Hebrew songs she learned.
Nguyen was born in Laos to Vietnamese parents. The young family of five spent almost a year trying to find a safe haven. They were caught twice and imprisoned, the first time before they were out of Laos and after having spent two days on foot in the jungle, and the second in Thailand, after they had survived a perilous boat journey.
“They thought we were spies. My father was tortured. Then we were released and transferred to a refugee camp. Conditions were terrible,” she said.
After some weeks, they were allowed to emigrate, and applied to the United States, France, Australia and Canada, which was the first to accept them. They barely knew where Canada was.
They arrived with nothing, save for a bit of jewelry. Her parents knew no one here and did not speak French or English.
“My mother always remembers that when we arrived at Mirabel Airport – it was winter – someone put a coat around her,” said Nguyen. They were their sponsors.
“Roz right away was there and set us up in an apartment,” she said. “I have a vivid memory of her being there all the time for me, bringing us lots of clothes and toys, inviting me to her home.”
She introduced them to everyday Canadian life. Nguyen remembers going to her first ever movie with Abrahamson: Annie at Plaza Côte des Neiges.”
Jobs were found for her parents, her father Van Tho as a mechanic, her mother Thi Loc as a cleaner.
“Mr. Tabac,” as Nguyen still calls him out of respect, helped her father establish his own auto body shop business, which, at almost 77, he still works at with his wife, but not because he needs the money anymore.
“My dad can’t stop working,” said Nguyen, “or he will think too much about the past. He still does not talk about it.” Her admiration and concern for her parents is clear. The psychological scars they still bear are such that she is not sure they will attend the Aug. 30 event.
Nguyen, a Concordia University commerce graduate, began working at the National Bank as a teller. Today, she is adviser to the National Bank’s president for public affairs, as well as the bank’s Ambassador for Diversity. Her sister and brother are also still in Montreal and doing well, and have six children between them. A second brother was born here.
Her gratitude extends beyond individuals. “There’s a very special place in my heart for the Jewish community. It has been part of my life since I arrived in Canada,” she said. “I always feel comfortable with Jewish people and have made friends with them throughout my life.”
Tabac, 73, said he has the greatest admiration for the Nguyens’ tenacity and hard work and, especially, the sacrifices the parents made for their children. “Van Tho is the toughest guy I ever met,” he said, “and his wife is a martyr, an exceptional woman. It’s gratifying to see how well they have done.”
He is especially fond of Thi Be. “I can’t believe she’s 40,” he said.
Tabac is motivated because his own father came from Poland to Montreal in 1925 at age 12 – alone.
“The way I look at it, whatever I do is my way of giving back to the numerous people who must have helped him,” he said. “I’m a great believer that we all have a duty to see that Canada remains a great place of opportunity.”
Nguyen is hoping to reach other members of the Jewish community who assisted her family that she has lost contact with, both to invite them and, if interested, to be interviewed for a documentary she is making on the “boat people’s” experience in Quebec.
A year-and-a-half ago, Nguyen established a charitable organization, UniAction, that supports educational and health projects for disadvantaged children, some in her native country. “It’s my way of giving back,” she said.