Black April and the Anniversary of Boat People
Exactly 35 years ago today, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, and the Vietnam War came to a chilling halt. In Vietnam, today is a national holiday called Reunification Day. But refugees refer to this week as Black April.
After the takeover of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese government sent dissidents to “re-education camps,” where many faced abuse and torture. Approximately 1 million people were imprisoned without being charged or given trials.
Soon men, women and children began piling into boats and fleeing to… anywhere. But the high seas can be almost as dangerous as communist Vietnam: pirates attacked the boats, raped women, and murdered and robbed the refugees of their only remaining possessions. Children had no access to water. The situation at sea in East Asia became nightmarish.
If and when the boats arrived on foreign shores, many countries told the migrants they wouldn’t accept them. So the refugees burned the boats and crawled to land, begging for a place to stay. Officials then shipped them to one of many refugee camps. After 1979, countries in the West began resettling the refugees – who had become known as “boat people” – with the United States taking in the most people.
Some of the journeys took 15 years. Worse, many families will probably never be reunited.
It is easy to find comedians and films that make fun of Vietnamese-Americans, that stereotype them and their work here in the States. But such teasing is quite ignorant of the sacrifices they have made and the courage they have shown. They love freedom, probably much more than we self-proclaimed patriotic Americans.
Today, boat people flee countries all over the world in search of nearby shores. While the Vietnamese boat people were usually political refugees, today’s refugees flee broken economies and natural disasters: Cubans, Haitians, Indonesians, Moroccans, Romanians.
Regardless of our views on immigration, one thing is certain: freedom is very important. To everyone. We are in part, after all, a nation of boat people: Pilgrims and Italians and Jews. And Vietnamese.
For the Vietnamese boat people who settled safely in the United States, the promise of freedom gave them the courage to face unspeakable dangers at sea. Freedom, in fact, was worth everything. Some refugees have expressed that, even if they had died, it would have been worth it. And many did.
What can be done to help the people desperate enough for freedom that they are today’s “boat people”? Should we care for them? If so, how?
Do we have proper respect for freedom, and the sacrifices other people are willing to make to get it?