Saturday, October 13, 2012


It was 1979, the year I graduated from law school, when the term "boat people" sprang  into common use. It was a phrase that spelled desperation and defenselessness. Scraping together everything they had, Vietnamese families bribed government officials, left everything they knew, paid enormous fees to board dangerously overcrowded, unseaworthy fishing boats, and set out for "friendly" foreign ports. That was only the beginning of their saga of uncertainty, sadness and suffering.

Pirates, as in centuries before, attacked, plundered, raped, terrorized, and even murdered the vulnerable freedom-seeking families. The 'boat people' who avoided the pirates often suffered shipwreck, starvation and sickness, ultimately facing test far from their native land. And the few fragile craft that straggled into some foreign shoreline were often refused safe harbor, kept "quarantined" offshore as if they carried an epidemic. Fear filled the minds of would-be rescuers. Hardened hearts portrayed pictures of being overrun, resources exhausted and stability upended, not so much by the frantic demands of those dying offshore, but by those who would follow.

Soon food and water ran out, and desperate circumstances led to desperate means. Ships were scuttled and the near-hopeless fathers, mothers and children risked it all again as they floated towards shore like debris on the tide, their fate unknown. New dangers awaited the survivors onshore. Refugee camps were often nothing more than makeshift slums; overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe prisons where the weakest and most helpless lived in fear of the strongest. They simply survived as best they could as they waited through weeks and months of rejection while the world decided their future. 
Not often their first choice, 139,000 boat people accepted Canada's offer of shelter. Churches and charities, companies and individual families sponsored these Vietnamese refugees. It was like a blind date. Both parties were willing, but tentative and nervous about this relationship and its potential. The Vietnamese had known little but mistreatment. The Canadians were concerned that they may have let bandits into their pantry. But slowly, skepticism gave way to hope and humble beginnings. Hard work yielded results. Canada became, as it had so many times in its history, a land of opportunity, willing to welcome yet another culture into its ever-changing mosaic mural. 
Yet even today in Canada, the boat people still face hardship and lack of acceptance. Perhaps, to some extent, that is understandable. But it is the "pirates", those who prey on the peace loving and plunder the passive, that make me angry. It is not just the criminals who terrorize our newest citizens. It is often the business bully who slams his fist on the table and demands more than he deserves. Sometimes our Vietnam-born citizens must wonder whether they have exchanged one form of tyrant another.

I rarely get really mad, but late Tuesday night I wanted to curse as the acid rose to my throat. Yes, a settlement had been reached; but I saw no justice. Sure, after 32 years practicing law I knew that lawsuits usually come down to money. It isn't a matter of life and death, or physical harm. But it is still a matter of justice. And since being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease my need for justice has only increased. Not justice for me (despite my PD symptoms I can still fend for myself), but fairness for those who are not able to defend themselves. Bullies come in many shapes and sizes. But they all seek to take away freedom. In this case, it was the "boat people" who were bullied, stripped of their savings and left to re-earn the economic freedom the money represented. 
Injustice is like Parkinson's. It must be confronted at its every appearance and fought at every turn. And when we, wounded, fall we will repair and rise to face the foe again until we are victorious. For freedom is the cause for which we fight, to banish the bully that seeks to make us his.

1 comment:

  1. Here in Amarillo the boat people immediately found jobs, started buying houses (3 families to 1, and once that one paid off, another house and split the residents, until all 3 families would have a fully paid for home), educating their children (at church camp when asked to speak some Viet Namese or sing some cultural songs they refused saying their families wanted them to be fully acclimated) and then taking the top honors at commencement. It is rare today to think of them as boat people, they are just good citizens here. They've added to our culture and fit right in with our Texas hospitality.