Souvankham Thammavongsa, Toronto

I don’t know what it is like to be a parent, what it is like to have lost a child, to make a choice about who to grab onto, to save because I am the child who was saved.

My parents were refugees from Laos. They built a raft made of bamboo to cross the Me Kong River, to get to Thailand. There was a refugee camp there, in Nong Khai. My parents didn’t know anyone who lived in another country, who they could reach out to—everyone they knew was with them in the refugee camp. It was strangers who reached out to us, from Canada. An elderly couple named Olga and Earnest Kuplais. They came to get us at the airport. We didn’t even know what snow was, or what the cold felt like. We arrived in Canada in the middle of February. I had bare feet. Earnest took off his Russian fur hat and put my feet in them. We didn’t know how to speak to each other then because we had no common language, but this very act said more to us than any language could.

I am lucky. I am the child Canada saved. I am the child of the parents Canada saved. Canada opened its doors to us.

I have no birth certificate because when you are born inside a refugee camp, you are considered stateless. You are not a citizen of any country. I have never been a citizen of any country except Canada. Inside my Canadian passport is a page. It reads:

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada requests, in the name of her Majesty the Queen, all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

 All those to whom it may concern. Allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance. Afford the bearer assistance and protection as may be necessary. As may be necessary. This is a piece of paper. These words mean something. It’s law. Wherever I have gone I have passed freely without let or hindrance. It’s true. The Canadian government gave me and my family this almost 37 years ago. Canada has been generous and compassionate to refugees before, and it is my belief that Canada can be that again.


Lily Phan, Toronto

Lily Phan was invited to give a speech at a fundraiser for refugees at Lawrence Park Collegiate. A transcript of her speech/story appears below:

Hi. Thanks for having me here tonight. There’s a bittersweet quality about speaking at this event. Over 30 years ago, my family along with tens of thousands of other Vietnamese families were desperate to reach the safe haven of Canada and other peace-time nations. At that time, same as now, hundreds of thousands of Canadians mobilized to bring us here, despite deep security concerns and huge logistical barriers. History repeats itself and I am not sure if that in itself is not an indictment of how little we seem to have progressed in my lifetime.

I’m not going to talk about my journey to Canada or about the difficulties in making a new life here. You can easily find that information elsewhere, just let your curiosity guide you. Instead I’m going to talk about what it means to be a refugee and what it means to be a refugee who has found a home in Canada.

One of my high school memories that really sticks out took place in grade 9 geography class. For some reason, we were talking about refugees. This was early in the school year, so not many people knew about my background. We were all new to each other. A girl who sat near me made a remark about how all refugees were bogus, that we had made the choice to come so it was our fault if we suffered on the way. Well, that got my goat! I jumped up and basically shouted to her and the whole class. How can you say that people choose to suffer? That people choose to risk not only their lives but the lives of their family just to move? Do people choose to be persecuted? Do people choose to be bombed?

After that, we became good friends and stayed that way all through high school. I don’t blame her for her misconceptions about refugees. She was just repeating what she had heard. Unfortunately, I think there still exists many myths about refugees and what causes people to become refugees. It is not a good thing to be a refugee. It seems like a stupid thing to say, like saying that it is not a good thing to be a victim of crime, duh. Yet it has to be said, over and over.

You can think of refugees as being victims of mass crime, a crime so big that it moves populations, forces people from their way of life into the unknown and to gamble with their very existence if they want to keep on living. Being a refugee means that you have no choice but to go, or to die and to see your loved ones die. Imagine that. Can you put yourself into that situation? What would you do? How would you cope? Some people lose hope and go crazy. Could you keep it together so that you keep your family as safe as you can? What if you couldn’t? What if you saw your father, your mother, your sister or brother, your friends die in front of your eyes?

I was told that the majority of you were born here. Yet I bet that if you scratched your family tree, you would find a refugee somewhere in there and probably not very far back either. Canada is a land of contradictions. On the one hand, we are a land of invaders. After all, we took the land from the indigenous nations, through fraud and force. On the other hand, we are a land with a tradition of taking in strangers and helping them, starting with the very first Europeans. Yes, the indigenous peoples took in European refugees and taught them how to survive and make a home here.

I’ve thought a lot about this contradiction. I’ve often wondered about the irony of leaving Viet Nam, where my forefathers had fought a bloody war against colonialism, to come to a country that had a long and bloody history of colonialism and genocide. I’m proud of my family’s history of resistance against French colonial rule. I definitely do not want to be a colonizer in Canada.

Yet, Canada gave my family sanctuary and a new home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else but here and I don’t really want to either. How can I reconcile these two things? There’s a lot of talk these days about immigrant and refugee integration and about truth and reconciliation. I think these two things are intricately linked. After all, a lot of refugees come here fleeing colonialism and war. As a western state, Canada supports and engages in a lot of questionable practices abroad that cause people to flee their homelands. We are involved in the bombing of Afghanistan and Syria—that’s a fact. These countries are now the top source countries of refugees in the world. We want to welcome them to Canada; it is the right thing to do. But in doing so, are we enacting another form, another round of colonialism? These are questions we must ask ourselves, but these considerations should not be taken as an excuse to do nothing.

I know for myself, that I want to help Canada be the best nation that we are capable of being. For me, that means promoting justice, love and compassion. It means walking the walk when we talk about democracy, freedom, peace, diversity and respect. It means really unpacking all these heavy words to get to the heart of what they stand for. It also means being willing to look backwards as well as forwards; to have the courage to face the wrong-doings of the past and acknowledge them. It means having the vision and courage to right the wrongs of the past, no matter how hard that is to do. It means being willing to learn from history so that we don’t repeat it yet again.

We truly live in interesting times. Old ways of thinking and being are giving way to new possibilities. You may choose to be inspired or to be scared. The future will be determined by that choice. I choose the inspiration of love and I hope you will too.

Thank you.

Malissa Phung, Toronto


I honestly don’t know how both sides of my family made it out of Vietnam alive. But they did. Every parent and every sibling, every auntie and every uncle, all four grandparents, all seventeen accounted for. No one went missing. No one left behind. Every single one of them made it to Hong Kong…alive.

I don’t know much about my family’s boat crossing either. I wasn’t born then. Neither was my brother. The details were never given to me. The story, never told. But when I was old enough, the silence made me curious, so I started to ask, only to face more silence, more I-don’t-knows, more hushed admonitions for dredging up the past.

Collecting all the pieces of a boat story is hard when no one in your family wants to talk about it. You might never find all the pieces anyway. You might never understand, not fully.

These are all the pieces that I have managed to collect over the years.

I was born in Red Deer, Alberta, seven years after the fall of Saigon. My maternal great-aunt was privately sponsored first. Then the rest of us joined her. Even I tagged along, growing inside my mother’s belly.

My father’s side, they flew to Los Angeles, the city of angels. Having only met them after I turned sixteen, I still feel like a prodigal child—how do I ask about the crossing when I don’t know how to share more than blood?

Forty years later, I am still haunted. I am haunted by stories and images of refugees fleeing their homes only to capsize and drown, like Alan Kurdi, the boy who will lie face down forever on a beach in our minds. I am haunted by the numbers, the sheer numbers of those who have made it, who are still trying to make it, to the shores of Europe, or any shore, only to be turned away by fear, by barbed wire fences, waiting in camps for security clearance checks that may never come. I may not know much about my family’s crossing, but I do know how incredibly fortunate they were to have survived that crossing, to have resettled, to have been granted asylum on Indigenous lands thanks to the compassion of strangers and benevolent borders. I am here because they made it out alive. But I am also here because of empire and kindness.

I’m not sure if my boat story fits with the other boat stories. It’s not your typical Southeast Asian refugee story. I never lived in a camp. I never lost anyone in the war. Or in the crossing. But I am here. I am here because of war and love.

Haunted by the current refugee crisis, I feel more compelled than ever to keep asking. Of those who made the crossing, fifteen are still alive. If I am met with more silence, at least I will always remind them when I speak Vietnamese. I don’t have an extensive vocabulary but I do have a strong bắc kỳ accent.[1] How does a Canadian-born Chinese sound so bắc kỳ after all these years?

Not many Sino Vietnamese would impart such a mortifying accent to their children. It frustrates my father that we can’t hold our conversations in Cantonese. But this is all that I have left of the past. This strange northern accent. And the silence. An unshakeable silence calling every one of us to act, to do something, anything, for the boat families left behind.

[1] Separate, bắc kỳ means northern and weird. Together, it is a pejorative term, meaning Northern Vietnamese dog.

Ken Huynh, Toronto/Hong Kong

I have these two pictures of my parents that I keep in my wallet. I’ve had them since I was a teenager. One day, my mother was rummaging through some of their belongings that they had put away. These were things that they had long forgotten about, that could be dismissively put in away a drawer without much thought. My mother found these two pictures, and obliged with a laugh and smile when I asked her whether or not I could keep them.

These two pictures are two individual photographs of my parents, their student identity cards to be exact. My father’s was taken in 1979, when he was 21 years old, in Toronto. My mother’s was taken in 1981, when she was 21 years old, in Vancouver. They got them when they were first studying English. My father’s reads “Greenwood School” and “TTC – Toronto Transit Commission”. My mother’s reads “Vancouver Community College” and “King Edward Campus”. It let people know that they were students, entitled them discounted bus fare and entry to their schools.

My parents look beautiful in these photographs. They look impossibly young and wide-eyed. They look hopeful, eager, confident. My mother has her naturally straight hair in a perm; my father has one-length of wind swept hair. My mother has a sly, even mischievous, smile. My father’s face indicates that type of I-dare-you arrogance that only young men can have. They don’t look like they left a war-torn country just a few years ago.

They both fled Vietnam in the late 1970s. My mother is from a small city named Ca Mau on the southern tip of the country, and my father is from just outside of Saigon. My mother was in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur for the better part of six months. My father was in Okinawa for about six months as well. To get there – as many Canadians are compelled to remember – they took spare, little-equipped boats across treacherous waters. In the few times that they have recollected their journeys with me, I have found myself jarred by how casually they take up the dangers that they faced. They tell me stories of being gripped by the fear of possible rape at sea or death by drowning. They tell me these stories as we’re coming back from an obligatory toilet paper-run from Costco, with four 24-stacks of two-ply in the back seat of their car.

Some semblance of my parents’ journeys has been commemorated in Canadian public memory. Photos of the Vietnamese Boat People suffering at sea and their consequent arrival on Canadian shores serve as national moral touchstones and reminders. But I worry what can be obscured with these types of representation is the very fact that refugees are actual and complex people, with lives before and after the fact of migration. These photos make simple and happy moments out of unimaginable violence, loss and trauma. Ironically, they stand to minimize and make easily dismissed the events being depicted.

This is a problem – because to what end is a representation of a refugee’s journey, if it does not compel us to more deeply consider whom and what event is being represented? Related to this, to what end is the constant conversation about the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis, if we ultimately do nothing to assist them? A simple response in these instances is cursory acknowledgement and pity. We note that there were and are refugees, and then we just move on. What is more productive is asking why these issues exist. What does it mean that we live in a global political system where refugees exist? What does it mean when countries and governments can either grant asylum, or absolve themselves of any responsibility when there are millions of people suffering? Why is the idea of rejecting a refugee’s plea for asylum even possible and acceptable, to anyone? Much more so than a series of photographs that can be dismissively put away or discarded, a refugee’s life should compel us to extend our sense of responsibility, compassion and community.

Ken Huynh is a PhD Candidate at OISE/U of T. He is from Toronto. He lives in Hong Kong.

Thanh Vo-Gamble, Vancouver

This story does not belong to me.

I was born in 1985 in Songkla refugee camp, the first of the three camps that my family would live in in Thailand. That fact has always been a marker in my identity, deeply ingrained well before I ever understood the gravity of what it all meant. As a child, I thought it was something that made me unique – that I wasn’t born in Calgary’s Grace Hospital as so many of my classmates were.

I would come to learn that my marker is not unlike that of thousands, children of ‘Boat people’, born under harrowing circumstances, in camps scattered along the coast of countries offering temporary asylum.

Working under the cloak of night, my dad helped direct people to whatever vessel they would be attempting to flee on as they sought to escape the desolate future they saw for themselves under the Vietnamese communist regime. More often than not, the escapees would sell all their possessions to pay for the passage, taking only the clothes on their backs and if lucky enough some small keepsakes. Because of this ‘job’, one day my dad was able to secure a spot for himself, my mother and my then 1 year-old brother on a boat.

My brother and the 2 other children were given cough syrup to prevent them from crying as the 5 women and 27 men snuck onto an old canoe and set off across the Gulf of Thailand without a clue of where they were going. Their boat was stopped, not by pirates who were notorious for raping, stealing and murder, but by friendly fishermen who gave them food and directions towards shore.

They landed right on the beach of Songkla refugee camp. My family would stay there for 3 months and then be relocated to Sikiew, and lastly Phanat Nikhom.

Trying to earn whatever money he could, my dad worked by handing out the weekly food rations and in small coffee houses within the camps. When food rations ran low, my parents would buy a baggie of leftover plain noodles for 1 baht, their shelter-mates would gather up whatever food they had and all would eat communally making sure the children had enough nourishment.

They lived in close quarters, under framed shelters with dividers. The men banded together to protect the women from other men and the Thai soldiers that patrolled in the camps, taking precautions to guard the sleeping quarters and escorting the women to the toilets at night.

Close bonds were formed between my parents and their fellow refugees, some still lasting until this day.

My family and I were sponsored to Canada after 3 years of living in Thailand. We arrived in Vancouver, Canada in the winter of 1987 but our voyage would end in Calgary where we would start to build our lives as proud Vietnamese-Canadians.

I have no remembrance of Thailand but I do know that we were luckier than most.

Throughout my life, I’ve looked back at the few photos we have during our time at the refugee camps. Somehow finding comfort in these photo as a child, I would keep a particular one of my mom, my brother and myself in front of a life sized nativity scene under my pillow. With the muted colours and worn corners, I always felt a warmth and was able to sense the hope in the unsmiling faces of figures set before the dusty background.

This story does not belong to me, nor does it my father, my mother or my brother. We belong to the story. The story of humanity, of how through the kindness and compassion of not only individuals but that of a nation, where people who had nothing left but hope were able to create a new life. The story that continues as we strive to extend the compassion and liberties that so many of us once gratefully received to those who are risking their lives today.

Joanne Van Der Meulen, Calgary

Recently stunned by images and stories shared about the refugee crisis in Syria, it has sparked my interests in how my parents arrived in Canada. Ignorant, yes, but up until this time in my adulthood, ignorance was bliss. I only know of the luxuries in my life I live and was in denial about the thousands of people who were and are suffering a much worse fate.

My father grew up in Laos with three brothers and four sisters. His grandfather a scholar and his father had a high ranking in the Laotion Army. The influence of the communist government was daunting and unforgiving. Many felt they had to escape and try to create a better life for themselves and a future worth living for.

On one given night, my father with one of his younger sisters were in charge of keeping watch for people crossing the Mekong River. If anyone were to cross to escape, he was given orders to shoot them. They packed a change of clothes securely tied in a plastic bag and no other belongings except for what they wore. My father a strong swimmer, but my aunt not. It was a dreadful swim across the river, the skies dark and the current unforgiving. Both struggling to keep above water and the constant fight for survival. Once across, the task not nearly over, they began to run as hard and as fast as they could. My father’s friend who was traveling with them was soon hit by a car, they had no choice but to leave him.

After a few days, they finally reached a refugee camp, their older brother was unknowingly also at the same camp. A tearful and joyful reunion ensued and also an immense feeling of relief to have arrived to food and shelter. My uncle was there for over two years. He was a single male and that made it difficult to get sponsored. After a short period they were soon sponsored to Calgary, AB by a church. My father just adds tidbits here and there so it is difficult to get exact names and details. It almost seems like it’s not something he likes to revisit. He left behind his mother and two brothers in Laos whom he continues to see every few years. Another sister was sponsored to Seattle and one other to Halifax.

My heart aches for the struggle and fight for survival of those in Syria. I am completely broken when I see all the images of suffering that is happening while I live comfortably in my life. In a country that I can call mine. I soon hope those that are fighting for their lives can find a country to call theirs.

Kristela Antonio-Vo, Vancouver

I stare at my child napping, lying comfortably on our bed, much in the same pose as the Syrian boy on the beach, both 3 years old. My child is warm and breathing and has a bounty of opportunities for a fulfilling life. My heart aches and my whole being is devastated. The Syrian boy’s reality was one that is unimaginable to me BECAUSE OUR FAMILY FOUND REFUGE HERE IN CANADA.

My husband and his parents lived this reality over 30 years ago. A story about their struggle comes up in broken pieces here and there. It’s too heartbreaking all at once.  It’s too exhausting to relive. But once in a while, these stories serve a purpose and deserve respect and thought.

About how they boarded a stolen boat out of a small town in Vietnam. About how it took his father many attempts, getting caught each time until one “lucky” night when his mother also decided to go along with their infant son. About how his mother didn’t know the sea water would be too salty to drink and fed it to her son, that it would take days to reach a destination they were unsure of, but that it would be any other part of the world where there might be a potential for a better life, a safer place to call home and raise their child, one that would foster a life worth living. A place worth risking the dangers of open water in a boat filled to overcapacity, with no water and no food. A place worth the uncertainty. About how the scars still visible on my husband’s head were from wounds, perhaps insect bites, sustained while riding on that boat. About landing on the shores of Thailand and living in a refugee camp until one day, when my husband was 3 years old, now with a newborn sister, were finally able to migrate to Canada and realize this life they had hoped for.


Genevieve Tran, Toronto

Impossible Kindness is a Canadian Reality

I’ve never had to worry upon a trip to the library, or the dentist, if the staff there has lived or died in the latest political tumult to hit Toronto. It has never crossed my mind to imagine that if tanks rolled down Yonge St. (marking the takeover of the Western Canadian Regime), it would mean that I might as well keep my neighbour’s snow-blower, because he would have likely escaped in the middle of the night with his family, abandoning their house. I don’t have these ludicrous thoughts because I live in Toronto, Canada. Instead, this week, I will cross Yonge St. on my way to watch my friend’s softball game in Riverdale Park, and the library might have the book I’ve put on hold. As a Canadian, my mind has the war-free-bandwidth to think of flossing and thanking Mr. Possamai for bringing my blue bin back in on Friday.

In the former economically viable Westernized capital of South Viet Nam (a country that no longer exists), my mom and dad, too, once took life’s blissful banalities for granted. But in the 60s and 70s, the Viet Nam War raging in the countryside near the North spread its dark stain, slowly, but surely down toward Saigon.

Then on April 30, 1975, the bubble of the insular capital city finally popped, and Saigon fell with a disastrous speed no one had imagined possible. The North Vietnamese came rolling down Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard in tanks, victorious. This sight of the enemy, long-feared, triggered a mass panic, and then exodus in the largest-scale helicopter evacuation in history. In the decimated economy that followed, under a hostile regime, the many left behind knew that life and freedom would never be the same again. It would end up being 2 million people, who planned their escape—this time by boat.

It took my parents five hard years to work up the plan and gold ounces to escape. They couldn’t be sure, but they had researched that the world knew of the humanitarian crisis of the Vietnamese people. They had heard of organized refuges in neighbouring Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, and legal passages to start lives anew in countries that were actually welcoming them around the world. But they had also heard of devastating scams—countless exorbitant pay-upfront escape schemes that preyed on people’s desperation, taking their life’s savings and decimating the one last thing anyone had left: hope. And then, of course, there were stories of those who died because they had been too full of hope and dared to escape based on unreliable information. For my parents, in their late 20s and early 30s, it would all be nothing short of the biggest gamble of their lives trying to figure out what to do next, when the price could be their lives along with the lives of their two small daughters. Death was waiting on the open sea, to swallow us whole, to have us shot as treasonous escapees by coast guards, or beaten to death by pirates.

But the alternative was a life not worth living.

So, one moonless night in spring, when the coast guards would be blinded by darkness, and the ocean was still, a small fisherman’s boat pushed out quietly into the open South China Sea with its belly swollen. My parents, my sister and I, and 57 other people were inside. The engines were only turned on once the boat was in international waters. My mom the librarian, my dad the economist, along with students, civil servants, housewives, journalists and their children, aimed for Thailand. We had taken with us only what we could sew discreetly into our work, or market clothes. A silver necklace, some baby pictures.

I was two years old and my sister was five. We took turns sitting on my mother’s lap.

The 1.5 day trip ended up taking 9 days, when the plastic bags of a pregnant woman eating snacks had gotten sucked into the engine, stalling it early on in the journey. Drifting aimlessly, for days, without fresh water, mouths became cracked and eyes dimmed. It didn’t look like fortune was smiling down upon us. It seemed that the wishes and prayers whispered through the parched mouths of 60-some-odd Vietnamese people in a dot of a boat were impossible to hear, or to care about, in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the gauzy tentativeness of existence.


Impossibly, I find myself here, now, writing this to you as a Jays’ fan, with skinny jeans, a favourite IPA and opinions. I was that 2-year-old girl adrift in the Gulf of Thailand in a boat with a broken engine, no fresh water and no country. It is nothing short of the Incredible Humanity of Canadians that I exist. My family and thousands of other Vietnamese may have uttered our inaudible cries for help out in the middle of some remote sea, on the other side of the world, and not even in English or French, but Canadians in the 1980s must have been preternaturally, pre-Internet savvy! Joyce and Marion Mackie, Gordon and Doris Bennett, Jim and Jennie Montgomery, Cyril and Jean Gough were among dozens of impossibly kind strangers who had somehow heard my family. They were the congregation of a small United Trinity Church, in Charlottetown, PEI. And they had the wherewithal and organizational power to coordinate with a refugee camp in Bangkok, Thailand (where we finally landed) and with all governments in between, to issue airplane tickets and passports to Quang and Tam Tran and their two little girls, to fly to Charlottetown via Tokyo and Montreal. For a new life. Impossibly, we found ourselves in glorious and free Canada, just one month after that moonless night.

No one told us about the winters, but 35 years on, we’re still here!

So, what was it: a highly evolved heart, or advanced faith or education that these Canadians had, who saved us? They had reached out to complete strangers and handed us our lives back. I’ve had the extreme fortune of experiencing Canadian kindness, but I never questioned where it came from. I can only say for certain: it felt like a miracle; it felt like compassion.

Thy Phu, Toronto

Luck, Grace, and Political Will

My father left Viet Nam first, on a cramped dinghy, with only the clothes he wore, and a fierce hope that the risk we were taking would be worth it, that our family would be together again. When several weeks later, our own boat finally docked, after days of thirst and nights of hunger bobbing and drifting on the South China Sea, my mother could hardly believe it. My father stood waving at the beach; he’d kept vigil there since he’d arrived, praying that we would make it. And, unbelievably, we’d docked right where he had: Pulau Bidong, Malaysia, a camp that eventually would hold over 250,000 refugees.

It was luck—an auspicious wind blew us to shore.

It was grace—this was the same shore that sheltered my father.

But for us to arrive finally in Canada, our home now for many decades, it took more than luck, more than grace.

When my aunt sponsored us, our path was smooth. Within months, Air Canada flew us from Kuala Lampur to Toronto, via Montreal. More than luck, more than grace; it takes political will to expedite a refugee’s journey.

In 1979, I was four and my brother was two. We were children who survived, unlike three-year old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned, along with his mother, Rehan, and brother, Gylip, when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea last week. In the face of Abdullah Kurdi is a father’s inextinguishable grief for his broken family. Thousands more refugees, whose names we don’t know, whose photographs are not taken, have met similar fates.

Luck and grace could not save them. Worse yet, political will failed them.

As survivors, my brother and I learned a hard lesson when we were very young. It bears repeating: luck and grace are not enough; it takes political will to expedite a refugee’s journey home.

Y-Dang Troeung, Hong Kong

“Never a Last Refugee”

My parents named me after camp Khao I-Dang, the refugee camp where I was born. They did so to remember their survival, and those international aid workers who cared for them after an improbable escape from the labor camps in Cambodia, across the landmine-riddled jungle, to the border of Thailand. As difficult and confusion-inducing as my name is, I wonder now how my life would have turned out, had they had named me “Goderich” after the small Canadian town where a kind group of sponsors first pooled their resources to bring us to Canada. Or if they had named me “Trudeau,” after the man who held me as an infant when my family first arrived in Canada, the man who is the centerpiece of my family’s postcard-perfect photograph commemorating our arrival.

I think of this picture often. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcoming my family to Canada at a ceremonial tea party on Parliament Hill. Why were we chosen, why were we given prestige for this photo? My family was not just any refugee family Canada had taken in. Arriving on December 3, 1980, we were designated the last, the “final” Southeast Asian refugees admitted under the special government program. But of course there was ongoing need, ongoing suffering. The war in Cambodia continued for another 18 years, yet we were the last. And as the last, we were to symbolize something more than just gratitude. We were proof that Canada had fulfilled its quota, had checked “saved refugee” off the good karma list. We were to be the symbol that Canada had done what it was charged to do, and needn’t be asked to do more.

The scholar Sara Ahmed speaks of the “Happiness Duty” of the migrant, which means “telling a certain story about your arrival as good, or the good of your arrival.” With my family living in poverty, and haunted by the knowledge of those left behind, I had difficulty performing this duty. I remember re-living my family’s experience as a child. I remember the words thrown my way. “Genocide” was not an accurate definition of what happened, I was told. “Death” was too heavy for a child to say. But I could say “tragedy.” I could talk about how terrible war was. War in the abstract, as if what happened to us was an abstract thing.

The recent photo of a deceased Syrian refugee child has gone viral, it has motivated movements and pushed demands for the migrant crisis in Europe to be met not with suspicion and refusal, but with compassion and care. The global moral eruption that has been stirred by the circulation of one photograph is a feature that those who suffered from the Pol Pot regime did not have. There were so few foreign witnesses to the atrocities, and little to no photographs emerged from that time. Instead, to remember the genocide we have numbers. Figures of the deceased, and mere figures refuse to inspire the same collective mourning.

Last year was the greatest refugee crisis in European history. This year, we have far surpassed last year’s numbers. Like in 1979, for so long all we gazed upon were these figures, some that grip the imagination by their sheer volume, yet each number is a story, a mourning, a loss. All the while, to remember losses that Cambodians endured all I had were the numbers people tossed. The counting of every breath of life, when it stopped, when it ended.

If we allow it, there is another number that can grip our imaginations. 10,000, the number of Syrian migrants that Canada promised to secure in January 2015, 8998 of which it has so far failed to meet. I would not be here had Canada not met its goal of 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in 1980. I would not be here without compassion. That of Canadian citizens who petitioned the government to do more about the refugee crisis, who marched in the streets of Toronto in 1979 in support of Operation Lifeline, who set up a community fund to help my family buy food during our first few months in Canada. My history is proof that there is compassion and love. Now we are meant to de-prioritize compassion. We are meant to put love on hold, because we showed it to others in the past, because it burdens us in the present. But the good of the past does not permit the indifference to the now. The Canada that I believe in is a Canada where there is never a last refugee.

Y-Dang Troeung lived in Canada from 1980-2012. She is now an Assistant Professor of English at City University of Hong Kong.

Chinese version available at:

Linked article: “Snow Looks Nice to Asian Refugees”, The Montreal Gazette, Dec 4, 1980.,1294274&hl=en

Vinh Nguyen, Toronto

It was a starless night when my mother took my three elder siblings and me on a small boat, crammed with hundreds of people, to escape Vietnam. I had an infected toe and had to sit on my mother’s lap the entire journey. We encountered storms and pirates, who robbed us and raped some of the women. We had to wade through swamps that sucked people into its depths. We huddled in sheds to hide from authorities with machine guns. We were lucky. We survived and ended up at a refugee camp in Thailand.

My father, who followed us a few months later, didn’t make it. To this day we have no body. No answers.

During the three years we lived in refugee camps, the future was never a guarantee. Hope faded away. But Canada renewed our sense of hope, reuniting us with our extended family, who had already found asylum in the country.

I mourn the Kurdi family’s lost opportunity for reunification. Aylan’s body could’ve been mine. Or my siblings. Or any one of us inside the boat that night. I grieve the lack of hope given to the millions of people who are stepping into boats every night, who wait at borders, who die without witnesses.

Hope is a powerful thing for refugees, who have lost so much, who are cautious of wanting more.

I am no longer a refugee. I have hope. Canadians have hope and we can share this hope with the refugees and migrants in desperate need right now. Canada can and must do more!

That is the compassionate Canada I believe in.