This article is from the fall edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.
In towns like Bayou La Batre and Biloxi, the non-profit BPSOS empowers Vietnamese-Americans to lead fuller lives.
By Caine O’Rear
For Americans watching the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 — the day that officially marked the end of the Vietnam War — the chaotic scenes from our Embassy rooftop were the closing images of a long and tragic chapter in our history. For many of our South Vietnamese allies, along with scores of others from war-torn Indochina, it was the beginning of another chapter in their American story.
The story of their flight from Vietnam, and the daring in their undertaking, reads as though it were taken from the pages of one of the great 17th-or 18th- century immigration sagas. On any craft they could find, most of them wooden, many of them hardly sea-worthy, these refugees left by the thousands, risking everything in search of a better life. The ones who fled would come to be known the world over as “the boat people.”
It is estimated that from 1975 to 1995, some 800,000 refugees left Vietnam alone. At sea, they faced storms, disease, and even pirates. The dangers were so great and so common that their exodus became an international crisis. The United Nations reports that somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000 boat people died at sea.
Many of those who survived settled along the Gulf Coast. The commonality of coastal life with its fishing and shrimping and related industries made it a familiar haven. Since the time of the refugee crisis, Vietnamese-Americans — along with other immigrants from Laos and Cambodia — have been a fixture in the seafood and shrimping industries in Bayou La Batre. It was here they worked on the boats and in the seafood processing plants, playing a critical role in the town’s culture.
For most of the boat people in the U.S., the challenges of assimilation have been prolonged and acute. It is from this environment that the non-profit Boat People SOS was born.
A national non-profit organization, BP-SOS has six locations across the country, including offices in Bayou La Batre and Biloxi. The organization, which originally assisted with at-sea rescue missions for refugees stranded in the South China Sea, helps today with a range of issues that include domestic violence, work safety, translation, health care, and income-tax preparation.
Many of the refugees who left Indochina fled in extremis, and were wholly unprepared for life in the U.S. “We came from a communal society where we relied on our neighbors,” Thang Nguyễn, president and CEO of BPSOS, told Comcast Newsmakers last year. “We didn’t have that reconstructed in America, and therefore, we suffered a lot of trauma.”
Today, in Bayou La Batre, Kim-Lien Tran is in charge of operations at BPSOS. Things are tough these days for many in Bayou La Batre, and for the Southeast Asian community in particular; for the town is not the thriving place it once was. The economic downturn in the shrimping industry has hit fishermen and shrimpers especially hard, with some shrimpers struggling to put food on the table.
“It’s hard work, hands-on, and long hours,” says Tran. With the price of diesel so high, she says many Southeast Asian shrimpers are choosing not to go out this year.
“It is a struggle,” says Kiet Nguyễn, who is in charge of the Biloxi office. “Some will go out and actually lose money. Your deckhands will stick with you for a few trips, but after a few with no money, they will leave. It’s a Catch-22.”
Nguyễn says he is not aware of anyone in the Southeast Asian community having purchased a fishing- or shrimp-boat recently. “Mom and Dad, who were first generation, worked their butt off [shrimping] for the kids to go to school,” he says. “Back then they were making decent money. But the [second and third generation] kids don’t want to do this kind of work.”
In Bayou La Batre, Tran uses her first-hand experience to help others. Like other “boat people,” she came to the U.S. as a young child shortly after the fall of Saigon. The family was originally from North Vietnam but had relocated to the South where they left on a wooden fishing vessel. Like many of the boats that attempted to make the voyage, the vessel became distressed and was rescued by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea and taken to Guam. The family was sponsored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and was able to relocate to the Crescent City, where her father found work as a carpenter.
For Nguyễn and his family, the road to America was long and winding. In the late ’70s his father, a former South Vietnamese soldier, was arrested and put in a re-education camp after the country’s unification under Communist ruler Ho Chi Minh. After his father’s release the family was placed in the “New Economic Zone,” where living conditions were deplorable. His father and brother tried to escape Vietnam (there was only enough money for two of the family to attempt escape at the time) but the boat was beset by Thai pirates. Eventually, they made it to the U.S., arriving in Long Beach, Mississippi, in 1981.
When Nguyễn was six years old, he tried to escape with his mother and sister but the family was apprehended. As a result, his mother was sentenced to nine months hard labor in a prison camp. “I had a good time in there,” he says somewhat jokingly. “No school.” They were eventually released but tried to escape again, and, again, they were arrested. It wasn’t until 1991 that Nguyen was able to make it safely to the U.S., though it was through “paperwork” this time and not by boat.
Today, Tran and Nguyễn use their experience to help empower the Southeast Asian community in the face of today’s challenges. With everything from hurricanes to macro-economic pressures in any given season, the challenges facing immigrant communities on the coast can by many. To this end, BPSOS is here to foster fellowship and lend a helping hand.
You can find the organization at Facebook.com/BPSOSGulfCoast.
Top Photo: Kim Lien-Tran of BP-SOS.