TORONTO—There are many memories of his desperate escape from a chaotic Communist Vietnam nearly 40 years ago that haunt Kyanh Do.
Saying goodbye to his family at age 17, knowing he could die during the journey ahead.
Terrifying black nights on a tiny fishing boat during the four-day journey to Malaysia.
The scarcity of water when he arrived at a refugee camp, and the sight of shell-shocked fellow countrymen shattered by robberies, rapes and assaults since leaving home.
But the biggest hardship was dealing with the unknown.
“The major concern that we had then was we did not know what was going to happen to us,” says Do, who managed to secure sponsorship in Canada months later and now lives in Toronto and works as a chartered accountant.
“We didn’t know if we would ever get out of the camp, if we would ever get accepted by a third country.”
It’s those memories that consume the 52-year-old Do as he reads stories about the current plight of displaced Syrians and what’s considered the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Do says he’s determined to do what he can for those affected families. He’s been mobilizing other Vietnamese-Canadians to help sponsor Syrian refugees the way they were helped so long ago, saying: “It’s the least we can do.”
Donations and offers of assistance have been flooding in, says Do, president of the Vietnamese-Canadian group Voice Canada, which is spearheading the effort in tandem with Toronto settlement group Lifeline Syria.
A fundraising goal of $100,000 to sponsor three families has reached $80,000 and Do hopes to close the gap by the end of the month.
Fellow former refugee Tom Tang says it’s their turn to help those in need.
He will take charge of sponsoring a potential family of five and is shouldering the responsibilities with three friends—each former refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Tanzania.
“We were in the Syrians’ shoes back then and I think because the Vietnamese community has more-or-less been a successful integration that we need to come forward to show Canadians, our country, that taking in refugees is a good thing—we became taxpaying citizens, we give back to the country,” says the 41-year-old Tang.
“I am now a chartered accountant and you see doctors and you see everybody else doing amazing things and giving back to society.”
Do was among the roughly 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that were welcomed by Canada in the wake of the Vietnam War.
He left Vietnam alone at age 17 in December 1978. His father had been a manager at the post office, and when Communists took over, his father was jailed in “a re-education camp.” Do, the eldest child, was sent off in a fishing boat with a friend.
“It was a scary place at night because you could not see anything, it was just darkness,” he recalls, adding he was with about 300 others crammed onto a craft about 18 metres long and three-and-a-half metres wide.
“When I arrived at the camp, the first thing that I wrote home was: ‘No, don’t do it. It’s too much risk. I was lucky to make it safely but don’t do it, it’s crazy.’”
But within months of arriving in Malaysia, he says he was lucky to get an interview with a Canadian representative and secured sponsorship. He landed in Granby, Que., in March 1979 and settled in Montreal for six months. After having trouble finding work, he headed to Toronto and found a factory job.
His father was released from prison and joined Do in Canada in 1982. Another brother came a year later, and then another brother escaped from Vietnam a year after that. Do’s father was then able to sponsor Do’s mother and sister in 1985.
Do, now the father of four girls, expects his background will help him welcome traumatized Syrians.
“I think that part—when you first arrive—the experience is going to be very similar,” says Do, whose group also sponsored 85 Vietnamese refugees from Thailand over the last two years and is working to bring 28 more to Canada.
“You come to a new country, a new culture, there will be many differences compared to what they’re used to…. With our help, I’m sure that they will settle and integrate a lot faster.”