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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Here in Hong Kong, in this Far East jewel where East and West are compacted into districts of up to 400,000 per square mile, living in cramped high-rise housing, the letters “HIAS” would naturally catch my eye. They were imprinted alongside the name “Tran Thach Kien.” Inside the plastic bog he carried were the identification papers of this 37-year-old-photographer, one of the 55,000 boat people waiting here in this doorpost to China.

Nearly a year ago, he and his wife, fleeing Vietnam, spent three days and four nights on a small, unsafe riverine boat that somehow crossed the South China Sea to freedom.

Now, 12 months later, the scene was Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport where airplanes of 30 companies land on the runways extending into Kow loon Bay. Last week I was returning to America, and Iran Thach Kien, one of 6000 Indochinese refugees assisted by HIAS to resettle in the U.S., was about to board a jet liner that would bring him and his family to a new life, in a new land.

We talked both at the airport gate and on the plane. His case in many ways is typical of the tragedy that is occurring here.


In recent years the Vietnamese have been opening the flood gates to push out their Chinese minority. Engaging in commerce has become official justification for expelling ethnic Chinese into jungle and mountain areas or for making them leave in small boats. Thousands of Vietnamese find life so unbearable that they want to flee their homeland. The crunch usually comes when the government tells them to resettle in the “new economic areas.”

When the Vietnamese government confiscates businesses, the compensation is a mere fraction of the worth of the establishment. Faced with relocation, most Vietnamese of Chinese descent decide to brave the turbulent waves of the South China Sea, waves which have a habit of swallowing up the fleeing. And if the waves don’t get them, the pirates who prey on these defenseless boats may. It is no wonder then, that many don’t make it into Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong or the Philippines. Still, there may be a million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam who would opt for freedom.

Tran Thach Kien contacted HIAS because his niece and sister, sponsored by that organization, had already been resettled in the U.S. It was unclear whether he knew that HIAS was a Jewish organization, but he knew about Jews and he had heard on the Voice of America and the BBC that they were a “very intelligent people.” He also volunteered the name “Moshe Dayan,” and said that he was “a good, brave and intelligent man.”

He was aware that Israel was taking in Vietnamese refugees. In fact, some of his neighbors in the refugee camp had applied to Israel for visas. Throughout our interview, he and his wife, Tu Luc Lanh, realized that in fleeing Vietnam, they were risking their lives. They had to “chance it,” they related, adding sadly that they, too, had to leave relatives behind.


Throughout the journey across the Pacific to San Francisco and to New York, Tran Thach Kien, who had spent a year waiting in a refugee camp, would often look at a small scrap of paper. It was from his niece, and the message reminded me of what probably every new immigrant receives from relatives: morsels of good advice on little pieces of paper. This note pointed out that in a photo which Tran Thach Kien had sent to America, he was wearing a short sleeve shirt. His niece warned him to remember that in January it is very cold in New York and he should wear a long sleeve shirt and a sweater.

In my discussions with Rabbi Steven-Jacobs of Temple Judea, Tarzana, California, and Elmer Winter, past president of the American Jewish Committee, who were here in South East Asia, they often recalled the world’s treatment of Jews in the late 1930’s when Jews were the then boat people.

“We are determined not to let it happen again,” they stated repeatedly, adding they were going to call on American Jews to speed up the resettlement process. To quote the words of Vice President Walter Mondale: “History will not forgive us it we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.”

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