Special to the JTA Jewish Involvement with the Boat People, Vietnamese Refugees
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Special to the JTA Jewish Involvement with the Boat People, Vietnamese Refugees

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Like much else in the Orient, even the story of Jewish involvement in concern and help for the “boat people” must come to Hong Kong, this “fragrant harbor” where more than four-and-a-half million persons, packed into 404 square miles of land, have created a modern urban miracle, especially since only about 70 square miles are usable; there are no natural resources; and the British Crown Colony even has to import its own water.

It is here in this overcrowded city of flotillas of sampans, block after block of skyscrapers, shop after shop of stalls of Mode-In-Hong-Kong-goods, that on a mild late January day, Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Temple Judea in Tarzana, California, and Elmer Winter, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, past president of the American Jewish Committee, accompanied by this writer, toured a Vietnamese refugee comp where more than 9500 persons are jammed into an area capable of housing at best 2000 human beings.

This tour and a swing throughout the Ear-East by this writer, talks with refugee officials as well as the refugees themselves, showed that though slow in coming, there is a Jewish presence here in South East Asia in the struggle to save these unfortunate refugees who are being used as mere pawns this labyrinth of cruel politics.

There are approximately 55,000 Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. The comp we visited is in the district called Shum Shui Po. It is composed of quonset huts where whole families of six or seven sleep in one bed in large single room areas containing 300 people; a few concrete buildings of make-shift classrooms; primitive toilet facilities; and an unpaved and rocky soccer field that is often used as an assembly point. In a comp nearby, an apartment usually reserved for six persons holds 250 people.


Jacobs and Winter flew more than 7000 miles to see Shum Shui Po and other camps here and in Thailand and to bring a message back to America. At the end of the tour, Jacobs asserted: “My thousands of years of Jewish history walks with me in this camp. We have been here before.”

Both Jacobs and Winter are actively involved in helping the refugees in their local communities, in their states and in various organizations. Jacobs, a Reform rabbi, is chairperson of that state’s “Governor’s Task Force on Refugees.” Winter is chairperson of the Fund Raising Committee of the Wisconsin Indo-China Refugee Relief.

The two Jewish leaders pledged that they would continue their work “to raise the consciousness of the Jewish community as to the plight of the boat people.” If they have to, they said, they will “go up and down” the length and breadth of the U.S. to move American Jews to take on an even greater role in this human effort to shorten the stay of refugees in the camps and place them into the homes of Americans.

Winter, who is also past president of Manpower, inc. and experienced in vocational training offered suggestions to the officials of the comp to set up vocational instruction programs to prepare the refugees for life in the U.S. He said he hopes that these programs not only will occupy them while they wait, but give them a useful occupation for absorption in their new home. Winter also is helping in the formation of American medical teams to come out here and aid the sick and the starving.

Jacobs feels that for the last 10 years, Jews have turned inward because they feel that they have criticized. “But we must remember,” he asserts, “we are compassionate children of compassionate people and our history demands that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” Last summer his congregation resettled 12 Vietnamese families and set up a model for other congregations to follow.


The three of us were taken on the tour of the comp by K. L. Stumpf, director of the comp and director of the Hong Kong Christian Service. He is a Christian refugee from Nazi Germany who since 1937, in his own words, “has belonged to Asia.” He met Jacobs at the International Conference on Refugees in Geneva this past summer. Over and over again, he implored visitors to try to speed up the process of resettlement, especially from Hong Kong. There are about 400,000 boat people in camps in South East Asia.

Meanwhile, the refugees wait. In the Shum Shui Po comp they often look up at the sky as a jet lines, taking off from Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, heads out over the harbor for the U.S. Someday, they hope, they’ll be on that plane and that is what Jacobs and Winter want to help achieve: resettlement of these people who risked so much to reach freedom.

(Tomorrow: Part 2)

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