Welcome makes such a difference to a person, especially a child

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28 Jul 2016

Mr. Vu Khanh Thanh and his daughter Linh Vu came to Hackney in 1982, as so-called 'boat people' fleeing Vietnam.  Linh was 7 years old. On arrival in England, Mr Vu worked with the Refugee Council, helping resettle Vietnamese refugees, then established Ang Viet community centre. In 2002 he was elected local counsellor in Dalston and was awarded an MBE. Linh is an architect and runs her father’s restaurant.

We fled Vietnam in 1979. You may have heard the term “boat people”. Well, that was us, but we were the lucky ones.

It was our sixth attempt at escape. Each time, myself, my wife and our three young children nearly made it out. But each time were stopped.

On the final attempt, I managed to get out with my daughter Linh, who was 7.

She still describes to me being neck deep in water, gasping for air, reeds grasping at her legs, waiting for the boat to arrive, avoiding detection. She was shivering. She still remembers being in a boat with fifty other desperate people, lying side by side like matchsticks in a box, covered over by a tarpaulin. I told her we were going on an adventure. Even though she was so young she remembers drifting at sea for nearly two weeks. She remembers that we had run out of food and water. She remembers that the boat was so small we lent over and paddled with our hands. Though I tried to hide it from her, she remembers the fear and desperation.

She remembers the British Army ship we saw – like an iceberg sparkling with fairy lights in the distance. She remembers the cream crackers and green apples the sailors threw down – the biggest she had ever seen.

After a few days, the ship took us to a camp in Singapore. We were then taken to Britain.

At the camp in Southern England I worked with the Refugee Council for three years, as a translator and support worker for other Vietnamese refugees.

Linh remembers the camp fondly, the welcome we received and the community we built. She compares it to seeing the camps in Calais and around Europe, and is shocked by the difference. That welcome makes such a difference to a person, especially a child.

When we left the camp we moved to Hackney, where I took a cleaning job and Linh came along to help.

Other refugees always came to my flat looking for help. So, with support from Hackney Council, I founded the Ang Viet Foundation, a community centre supporting Vietnamese refugees. The first thing we did was put in some baths and places to wash clothes – people didn’t have these in their own tiny flats. We provided food, training, education and social activities. And we still do.   

Around the same time, we opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in London. It was always crowded with British people, they loved the food from the start.

My wife and other children couldn’t join us until five years later.

In fact, I wrote to the Queen and asked her to allow my family to come to this country and join us. I received a reply from her office and one week later my family were finally here with us. I will never forget that reunion.

I was a prominent professor in Vietnam, a strong opponent of communism. That’s why I was targeted by the government.

Linh remembers my political portrait at our home in Vietnam. I kept it hidden of course, on the roof of our toilet outside the house. She was always worried the police would find it when they came searching our house.

My brother-in-law was sent to a concentration camp. We told the children he had gone away. We never saw him again.

In 2002 I was elected local councillor in Dalston and later that year I was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth.

Linh is now an architect, and a mother. My other daughter runs her own business, and my son is a lawyer.

I have never returned to Vietnam.

Life would have been very different if we hadn’t received the welcome we did.

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