Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (Refugee women) - Strategy for survival

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1995

A recent study of Southeast Asian refugees who were resettled in Canada challenges many preconceptions about the extent to which refugees depend on the state.

By Nanda Na Champassak

Ngan arrived in Canada in 1982 with her two young sons. Along with her parents, sister, nieces and nephews, she emigrated directly from Viet Nam under the Orderly Departure Programme. This programme, based on a 1979 agreement between UNHCR and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, was an attempt to stem dangerous departures by sea. All of Ngan's group were sponsored by her brother, who had arrived as a student in Canada prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975.

In 1975, Ngan was 23 years old, a final-year law student at Saigon University. Her cherished hope was to obtain a scholarship for postgraduate studies in commercial law in Australia. Though married with a baby boy, this did not interfere too much with her studies. She was cushioned by a supportive family and assisted by domestic help. Ngan was young and had plenty of time to fulfil her hopes and aspirations to make a good life for herself and her family.

During the seven years between the communist takeover of South Viet Nam and Ngan's arrival in Canada, her comfortable middle class existence turned into what she describes as the most unbearable period of her life. Prevented from completing her studies, Ngan was forced to attend indoctrination meetings where she was subjected to intense criticism because she was a "city person." Her mother, who had previously worked for the government, was fired, and her father's business was forced to close. Ngan and others like her were sent to do manual labour digging irrigation canals. Her husband, who had served with the South Vietnamese Army, was sent to a re-education camp.

"The uncertainties of not knowing when I would see my husband, the worsening economy and having my studies cut off made me feel completely hopeless," she recalled. Even after the release of her husband a few years later, hardship exacted a heavy toll. The couple divorced in 1979.

Like all newcomers to Canada, refugees are immediately confronted with different customs, weather, language and food. Immigrants, however, have a head start over refugees in the integration process. No matter how narrow the range of choices, immigrants are in control of their destinies and they exercise this by choosing to leave their homelands. For refugees, the elements of control and choice are completely absent.

According to Ngan, "the most difficult part for me was to regain a sense of self-esteem and control over my life." Being single with two young children in an alien environment required a survival strategy. But for that strategy to work, Ngan had to draw on resources deep within herself and outside just to cope with the new challenges of rebuilding a life for her family.

Ngan's personal experiences in many ways mirror the recent findings of a 10-year study of the resettlement of South East Asian refugees in Canada. The study represents a collective portrait of struggle and achievement. Headed by Dr. Morton Beiser of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry and the University of Toronto, the study tracked more than 1,300 persons from Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia admitted to Canada between 1979 and 1981. (By the end of 1994, Canada had resettled over 195,000 South East Asian refugees, 59,000 through the Orderly Departure Programme).

The study shattered many preconceptions. Popular opinion and scientific theory, for example, suggested that the refugees' experiences of trauma, violence and loss would put their mental health at risk, particularly in their attempts to adapt to a profoundly different environment. But contrary to expectations, only a small number developed mental health problems. While there is no doubt that the refugees faced a multiplicity of stresses language problems, finding a job, and understanding new social norms the study demonstrates that the presence of family, the availability of a like-ethnic community, and ability to focus on the present, temper the stresses and help to promote successful integration.

Ngan's entire family was accommodated in her brother's small home in Ottawa. The close-knit family provided an important buffer against all that was cold, strange and unfamiliar. When describing her first couple of years, it was clear that Ngan was still in a survival mode. The new life meant understanding and mastering an endless list of do's and don'ts, the how to's and where to's. The enigmatic workings of Canadian institutions were intimidating. Schools, hospitals and public transport systems were among some of the hurdles that Ngan had to overcome one step at a time.

She recounted a particularly painful experience when, shortly after her arrival, she was called to a meeting with the principal of her sons' school. Her youngest son had disrupted a class by crying. The apparent cause of his distress was not knowing how to say that he needed to use the washroom. The principal admonished Ngan to try and speak only English at home. It was an absurd request, but what stunned Ngan was the implied criticism of her as a mother. Since that experience, Ngan has made great efforts to acquaint herself with the educational system and is today actively involved in various activities at the Ottawa Board of Education.

"I have always had one goal in mind, and that is to overcome every challenge that comes my way, no matter how constant," she says. This steely determination is one source of personal strength that has guided Ngan since her days in Viet Nam. Another was her resolve to let go of her past.

Contrary to popular perceptions, South East Asian refugees are not a homogeneous group. When the refugees first arrived, many of Canada's principal cities could boast pre-existing established Chinese communities. None, however, had Laotian, Cambodian or Vietnamese communities of significant size. Initially, the ethnic Chinese refugees had a mental health advantage over the non-Chinese. Most probably, the symbols of community, the oasis of historical continuity, in an otherwise foreign landscape, helped the Chinese adapt more quickly than the non-Chinese. Over time, as new communities became more established, the initial Chinese advantage faded.

High rates of unemployment were a problem during the early years of resettlement. During the early 1980s, economic recession forced many people who might otherwise have been unavailable for employment for example, mothers with young children to enter the labour market. Unemployment rates for women were particularly high. The end of the study, 1991-92, paints a happier picture. In 1991, Canada's national unemployment level was over 10 percent. At that time, only 8 percent of the refugees were out of work.

Ngan was fortunate on the employment front. She juggled family care, English courses and odd jobs as waitress, cashier, office assistant. With no husband to share the many burdens, especially in caring for the children, Ngan said she had few options. "I had no choice but to over-extend myself, to raise my sons and set strong examples," she said.

Today, one son is in his second year of university, studying engineering. The other is completing high school. She is very proud of both.

By 1985, Ngan's vision of her future was no longer limited by immediate concerns. Her children were settled in school and the security of routine had been established. Still, throughout the process of integration, there were many moments when, in her words, "reality bites hard." She recalls periods of depression and intense self-doubt. She was in a dead-end job, and going back to school was ruled out as too expensive. Ngan admits going through bouts of self-pity, but she refused to wallow in such self-sabotaging moods. "I am a problem-solver," she states, adding that "self-pity does nothing for your self-esteem."

Her big break came in 1986, nearly five years after her arrival. She applied for a position in a big Canadian bank and was immediately offered the job. Today, she has successfully advanced through a succession of promotions at the same bank. She still holds the dream of one day completing her studies.

Prior to the public release of findings from his 10-year study, Dr. Beiser collaborated with the Gallup organization on a survey to assess current opinions about the South East Asian refugees. According to the survey results, 47 percent of Canadians felt that "accepting South East Asian refugees has cost Canadian taxpayers too much money." In fact, in addition to their high rates of employment, Dr. Beiser found that refugees use medical care at about the same rate as other Canadians, and that in a given year, only 4.5 percent resort to social assistance compared with 7 percent of all Canadians.

In this respect, Ngan recounts how, shortly after their arrival to Canada, her brother informed them that under no account could they use social welfare. His sponsorship commitment entailed that he cover all financial costs for a period of 10 years. They were used to hardships and sacrifices. They managed to live up to this commitment. Many other refugees have managed similar undertakings.

The Gallup Poll also revealed that only 34 percent of Canadians felt that the refugees were interested in giving something back to Canada. But in contrast with popular opinion, the study results found that:

Public knowledge of refugee issues is only as good as the last media headline, and media headlines are usually about bad news. Prior to a television interview about his study, Dr. Beiser recalls the interviewer saying, "I am actually surprised that I am covering this story; we usually like plane crashes better than plane landings."

In another telling example, Dr. Beiser relates his experience at a radio call-in show. The radio host told him that although "everybody knows" that the South East Asian refugees were the most successful group of refugees in Canada's history, that could not be taken as evidence about other refugee groups. Dr. Beiser responded that, although there were no comparable research data about other refugees in Canada, he could see no a priori reason to believe that the South East Asians had been that much more successful than the Ugandans, Hungarians or Jewish emigrés who had preceeded them. He also pointed to an irony: the media seem to have little problem generalizing from one refugee who gets into trouble to refugees as a whole. It is good news that seems to create caution. Generalizations of either kind require caution.

Ngan dismisses such forms of media stereotyping. She strongly believes in fitting into mainstream Canadian society. She feels that others should also make that effort. One way she does this is by avidly following issues of Canadian interest and discussing these with her friends and colleagues.

When asked whether she has ever felt torn between two cultures, Ngan answers "no." She adds that it is important to recognize that "certain values in your home country may not be relevant here." And she concedes that older people have more difficulties in letting go of their traditional values and sometimes cling to old taboos and social stigma. Fortunately, her status as a divorced woman has never been a major obstacle for her in Canada. This, despite the fact that her parents still strongly frown upon her divorcee status.

According to the 10-year study, by the time the last interview was conducted in 1993, the former refugees had become more satisfied with their lives. Forty percent reported no worries compared to 12 percent during the 1981 interviews. Asked how they felt about various aspects of their lives, such as material comfort, family life, social life and spiritual life, almost all respondents expressed satisfaction.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 100 (1995)