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'God blessed my life'

Vietnamese immigrants celebrate Christmas with new hope
By Cassandra Drudi, Ottawa Citizen
December 21, 2008

Linh Truong used to celebrate Christmas with his family in Vietnam. But at the age of 22, he joined the many Vietnamese who fled the country following the fall of Saigon. He lived in the Philippines for nearly 20 years without status. He felt lonely there, and holidays weren't the same.

"There was nothing much to celebrate in the Philippines," he said, speaking through a translator.

But last night, at a Christmas party welcoming the stateless Vietnamese who moved to Ottawa, there was much to celebrate.

"I feel happy because so many people welcomed me," Mr. Truong said. "I feel free. My new life is beginning."

Mr. Truong, now 42, is one of 39 Vietnamese from the Philippines to settle in Ottawa under Project Freedom at Last. The project was an initiative of the Vietnamese Canadian Federation and other groups and was aimed at helping resettle the remaining Vietnamese families in Canada.

Mr. Truong and his wife, Crestita, 39, arrived in Ottawa on Nov. 28. They are the latest of 16 families to arrive in the city.

The Vietnamese Canadian Federation has been working with Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Hoi Trinh since 2002 and with SOS VietPhi since 2005 to lobby the federal government to allow the Vietnamese stranded in the Philippines to immigrate to Canada.

Between the fall of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War and the early 1990s, about 1.5 million Vietnamese fled the country, many by boat, to other countries in Southeast Asia. A large number would make their way to Canada, including thousands who settled in Ottawa in then-mayor Marion Dewar's Project 4000.

But many of those who arrived in the Philippines remained there without status because they were not recognized as refugees.

Most of the estimated 2,500 stateless Vietnamese in the Philippines had already been accepted by other countries, including Australia and the United States, Lisa Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), told the Citizen last month.

Through Project Freedom at Last, Canada is accepting "the last batch" of stateless Vietnamese, she said.

In May 2007, then-minister of citizenship and immigration Diane Finley announced that the Canadian government would allow the Vietnamese still stranded in the Philippines to apply to immigrate to Canada under humanitarian and compassionate provisions.

To prepare for the arrival of the new immigrants, the Vietnamese Canadian Federation worked with community groups across the country to establish accommodation and employment in advance.

In Ottawa, eight community groups formed to support the 16 families who have arrived here since April, and $35,000 was raised to support the newcomers.

Last night at the Plant Recreation Centre, the Vietnamese Canadian Centre and the city's Vietnamese Canadian community hosted a party to celebrate the families' first Canadian Christmas.

Outside the large hall where presents of housewares and children's toys sat wrapped under a Christmas tree, small children squealed with delight as they threw paper airplanes of white and lime green through the air.

In a small room adjoining the hall, tables were filled with an extensive buffet that included two different kinds of spring rolls, platters of rice, different beef and pork dishes and brightly-coloured gelatin and rice-flour desserts. Behind the tables, members of the Vietnamese community groups that helped the new arrivals resettle here stood alongside among the new families to serve food to the 150 people who attended last night's party.

Hue Le, 47, grinned as she filled her plate with spoonfuls of chicken, green beans and vermicelli noodles. Ms. Le, her husband and their four children were the first family to arrive in Ottawa from the Philippines in April.

Her son, Hoa, 18, smiled shyly as he waited in the quickly-moving buffet line.

Last night's party was brought together everyone involved in the project and helped close a sad chapter in the lives of these families.

"They were in limbo for almost 20 years," said Can D. Le, national co-ordinator of the project. "They had no future."

"What we're doing here tonight is to celebrate the fact that everyone's here together," said Paul Dewar, NDP MP for Ottawa Centre. "Fundamentally, what it's all about is people belonging."

And for newcomers like Mr. Truong, that feeling of belonging and the chance to meet other Vietnamese at last night's celebration was unprecedented.

"I've never seen this before," he said, speaking through a translator. "This is the first time I've had that feeling of people paying attention.

"God blessed my life."

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