Former Vietnamese refugees live a happy life in St. John’s
Kim Le and her husband Cham arrived in N.L. as Vietnamese refugees
By Jane Adey, CBC News Posted: May 05, 2015 9:20 AM NT Last Updated: May 05, 2015 9:50 AM NT
“It’s very important for the girls on their graduation day so I want to make them pretty,” said Le.
When I met with her, Kim was focusing on a tricky shoulder seam of a sparkly turquoise dress.
“Some of them are a lot of work, but you know I like challenge,” she said.
Kim and her husband Cham Le have never been ones to shy away from challenges. They arrived in St. John’s as refugees after the Vietnam war ended in 1975. With the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon last week, they agreed to tell their story and how they escaped the communist regime.
As children and teenagers, Kim and Cham both lived through the brutality of the Vietnam war. Kim lived in a small town in the north, but Cham was from Saigon. He was there when the city fell to the communists.
“We lost everything. My parents were born in China, left to Vietnam when they were about five years old. They lost everything in China, then they build up everything in Vietnam and then they lost everything again,” he said.
The government took control of his parents’ grocery store. Kim’s family lost their business to the government too.
“Making for living hard, nobody trust nobody anymore, the government getting control, it’s a hard life, it’s totally different. You left Vietnam because you have no future,” he said.
40th anniversary of end of Vietnam war: Binh Pho was a second year university student in Saigon when the city fell to the Viet Cong17:08
Leaving was a huge risk. But after three years under a communist regime, Cham’s family decided the oldest children should try to get out. He was 15, his older sister only 17.
They escaped their house that was guarded by soldiers and spent months on the run. They arranged to leave the country by boat but the middle man in the deal took off with their money. Luckily, a second escape plan came through.
“We had about 300 people on the boat so we just had enough space to sit. No food, no drink for seven-eight days.”
It was 1978 when Cham and his sister arrived at a refugee camp in Malaysia. Conditions there weren’t much better.
“Small portions of food every three days, that’s all we could get. I was in refugee camp for one year. Me and my sister don’t care where we’re going, as long as we can get out of camp, as long as we can live far away from the war, we don’t see the war again,” he said.
40th anniversary of end of Vietnam war: Newfoundlander Bernie Hill served in Vietnam9:18
Cham was accepted to go to Canada as a refugee and he arrived in St. John’s in 1979.
Kim was still in Vietnam at that time but thinking about an escape too. One day, she met her cousin on a bus.
“He said next two days we had a boat leaving and would you like to go? And I said… I don’t have money,” she said.
All Kim had was a 24 -karat gold ring worth about $50 US. Her cousin said it would be enough to pay for her passage.
“So I went home and I couldn’t sleep. Should I go? Should I not go. There was no future for me so I decide to go. So I left alone… on a small boat… and I said, ‘That’s it, either I have freedom life or I am going to die in the ocean.'”
Kim’s harrowing journey to Malaysia lasted 11 days and then as the boat approached land, things got worse.
“The captain when he see the land he tried to run as fast as he can so he hit the rocks on the bottom of the sea so the boat was broken and everyone was thrown in the water,” she said.
Kim grabbed onto a container and was able to float while rescuers plucked the refugees from the water.
“The waves were so hard, I couldn’t hang on anymore because at that time I’m very skinny and small … I was so weak I let it go,” she said.
Kim said she was lucky because she had long hair, “The rescuer grabbed my hair and pulled me up.”
Kim has been watching recent coverage of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. She said everything she experienced has come flooding back to her mind.
“It’s very emotional and bad memories,” she said.
What she also finds difficult to watch are recent stories about migrants fleeing countries like Libya. She sees hundreds crammed on boats just as she was decades ago. Kim has known that same level of despair.
“It’s really hard … and you don’t know what will happen to your life next.”
After a hard year in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Kim was accepted to go to Canada.
“I had no idea, where Canada was. I said yes… I was so thrilled.”
Kim left the pain of Vietnam and Malaysia behind and arrived in her new home: St. John’s, Newfoundland. A fellow countryman, her future husband was waiting at the airport.
Cham liked to meet with the newcomers and help them settle in. Kim remembers the first moment she spoke to Cham.
“He was speaking Vietnamese and I was crying because I didn’t think I would meet some Vietnamese here,” she said.
Cham became Kim’s translator and helped her navigate her new surroundings. The friendship blossomed over the years and they soon vowed to continue the navigation together. In 1987, among Vietnamese and Newfoundland friends, Cham and Kim were married at the Lester Hotel in St. John’s.
This was their second big commitment, their first was the joint purchase of a sewing business back in 1982. Kim recalls the negotiation with the owner at the time.
“I said how much you selling for and she said $2,000 and I said, ‘God, I don’t have $2,000.’ But I looked at her and I said, ‘Do you trust me?’ And she smiled and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I have only $500. I’ll give you $500, the other $1,500 I will pay you $500 each month.’ She said yes, and that’s how I start my business,” she said.
Kim’s sewing machine needle hasn’t stopped much since then.
“I don’t know how many hours I work a day. I work until I’m finished, until I’m tired, then I go to bed.”
Aside from the frantic pace of work. Cham said things here in Newfoundland are pretty laid back.
“Freedom is more important to us I think it’s hard for anybody living here to know that until you actually been through all this,” he said.
Cham and Kim have two children now. They have control of their lives, and freedom they could only dream of back in Vietnam.
“I’m not worried as long as I have good food on the table and a comfortable life, that’s all I want and, you know, I think our life is really peaceful,” she said.
Cham Le thinks it’s important to mark the end of the war in Vietnam. He doesn’t want people to forget the horrible things that happened in his country but he also wants people here to know they haven’t forgotten the kindness they were shown when they arrived as refugees.
“It’s time for us to say thank you to all the Canadian people and the Newfoundlanders that were helping all the Vietnamese refugees settle in Newfoundland and Labrador… without the help we don’t know how we get through all this. Everyday we feel lucky,” said Cham Le.
Kim has been back to Vietnam to see family still living there. She said she is always glad to return to Newfoundland.
“This is my home. I feel so happy I came here… happy, happy everyday.”