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Vietnamese fishermen in Gulf fight to not get lost in translation

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
  • Language and cultural barriers, troubled history complicate oil disaster for Vietnamese
  • Seafood industry is lifeline for 80 percent of Vietnamese living in the Gulf region
  • Starting over not new for people who came here as refugees and rebuilt after Katrina
  • Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao: "We are resilient people. We are survivors."

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- The lengthy documents they initially were asked to sign used language even a native English speaker would struggle to understand.

The Vietnamese interpreters BP first brought in for safety and cleanup training stirred painful memories and suspicions because they spoke to the elders with a North Vietnamese dialect and used what some described as "Communist terminology."

The closings of fishing areas have been announced on radio stations these fishermen don't follow, so some have piloted their boats where they shouldn't, which means tickets from the Coast Guard keep coming.

For the Vietnamese-Americans living in the Gulf Coast region, the oil disaster is especially complicated. It's made murky by language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and a history of challenges that have shaped them for more than half a century.

Their ties to seafood run deep and wide. A third of all fishermen in the Gulf are Vietnamese, making them arguably the most affected minority out there. More than 24,000 people of Vietnamese origin live in Louisiana, according to the last completed census. About 6,000 live within a two-mile radius in the neighborhood of New Orleans East -- distinguishing it, the area's priest says, as the greatest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam.

In the rectory of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, the Rev. Vien Nguyen sits in front of an altar to his ancestors and his Catholic faith. Religious texts in English and his native tongue fill the high shelves around him, as do books bearing titles like "Freshwater Crayfish Aquaculture," "The Evolution of Cajun & Creole Cuisine" and Franz Kafka's "The Trial."

Here, he introduces some of the Kafkaesque oil-disaster trials facing his own people.

He talks about their distrust of lawyers -- "sharks," he calls them -- who've come in from out of state, circling them with promises and confusing papers. He mentions the mental health concerns -- depression, lack of sleep, tensions in homes -- that need to be addressed, a task made difficult by an absence of Vietnamese-speaking therapists in a community that still stigmatizes admissions of emotional trouble. He worries about the lack of job training and opportunities for a people who've worked in an industry that may suffer for God knows how long.

"These are proud, active people who contribute to their own livelihood, and now they have to be in lines," asking for handouts, he says. "It is a devastating blow."

About 80 percent of Vietnamese-Americans in the Gulf region are connected to the seafood industry through jobs that include fishing, shucking oysters, packing shrimp, and running stores and restaurants, the priest and others say.

The work they do is something many brought with them from fishing villages in their native land, a place most of them fled as "boat people" after the 1975 fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. That departure was for many the second time they'd become refugees. They'd already uprooted themselves and started over with nothing in 1954, when their country divided into North and South and they, as the Catholic minority living in Vietnam, ran from the Communist rule that took over the North.

The former Archbishop Philip Hannan of the Archdiocese of New Orleans reached out to them in refugee camps in America, inviting them to call his home theirs. So they came here in the '70s and '80s with the help of Catholic Charities and, over the next 30 years, reinvented their lives once more -- in a climate reminiscent of the country they'd left behind.

They worked hard in a familiar industry that didn't require them to master English, often leaving their children to be cared for by older siblings and relatives so they could put in long days. They created a self-reliant community where their own local businesses thrived. They planted acres of vegetable gardens along levees, incorporating the agricultural roots of their ancestors.

Today, people wearing the traditional conical straw hats stoop in their cultivated yards or walk along streets with names like Saigon Drive. A trailer, lined with coolers of freshly caught shrimp for sale at hiked-up prices, is parked in front of a strip mall that includes Tram Anh Video, Kim Tram Jewelry and Tien Pharmacy.

Hurricane Katrina five years ago marked the third time they lost everything and had to start over. But it was also the storm that gave them a voice.

The documentary "A Village Called Versailles" -- a reference to the public housing project where they first settled -- debuted on PBS last month. It chronicles how the Vietnamese-Americans living in New Orleans East galvanized after Katrina, making theirs among the first neighborhoods to rebuild.

Nguyen: What's in a name?

Forty percent of Vietnamese people share the surname Nguyen

Dynasty names, dating back to the 13th century, influenced the surnames people had, explained Mariam Lam, an associate professor of comparative literature and Vietnamese at the University of California, Riverside.

In some cases, names were changed by force. Other times, people changed their surnames for fear of retribution. And in other instances, names were taken, or bestowed upon people, as an honor.

Vietnam's last dynasty, the Nguyen Dynasty, came into power in 1802. Descendants of previous lords changed their surnames, while others fled to China, Lam said.

The Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted until 1945, awarded many with the surname during its rule, and criminals, Lam said, changed their names to avoid prosecution.

"As with all other common surnames," Lam added, "most people having this surname are not necessarily related."


Grass-roots organizers established agencies to fight for assistance and empower people, including one for youth called the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO). The church, which began holding Mass just six weeks after the floodwaters destroyed what they'd created, became a staging ground for construction help and community meals. Health clinics sprouted up, as did a new charter school. And collectively, they protested a planned 90-foot-high landfill of hurricane debris on their neighborhood's edge, shutting down a move by the city government that they'd never confronted en masse before.

A few years later, in 2008, they'd help elect the nation's first Vietnamese-American congressman, Louisiana Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao.

The next challenge: oil

Over a bowl of homemade pho, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup, Tuan Nguyen provides a glimpse into how the community is mobilizing to face its newest challenge.

He's the 30-year-old deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC), established after Katrina, and serves on the rapid response team created by Cao after the oil disaster. Along with others on the team, he's been crisscrossing the region, meeting with fishermen and others -- not just Vietnamese -- to assess their needs, gather testimonies, answer questions and advocate on their behalf.

They've succeeded in gaining the ear of a BP official, Larry Thomas, who among other things has approved the hiring of qualified and trained bilingual interpreters.

"We had never been exposed to the Vietnamese community," says Thomas, the BP manager of government and public affairs for the lower 48 states and the Gulf of Mexico. "Clearly, it's a tight-knit community, and it's been a steep learning curve for us. The interaction has been great."

Even with all he knows about navigating the system and securing whatever assistance is available, whether that's food stamps or BP claim dollars, Nguyen can't persuade some of his own relatives to get the help they so desperately need.

"One of my wife's uncles is a very proud man. He's a deckhand. I told him to come in and talk about services," Nguyen says. "He said, 'I can't stand in line. What if someone sees me?' "

While his wife's uncle won't accept assistance, others in the state have driven hours to get simple answers to questions from agencies like the MQVN CDC. The hope, Nguyen and others say, is that grass-roots organizations will sprout up elsewhere to help meet the growing and often different community needs.

One such organization has already been formed in Biloxi, Mississippi, an area that is home to about 5,000 Vietnamese-Americans. The Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families, led by volunteers, is hoping to step in where the New Orleans organizations logistically can't.

Celina Tran, 36, is working full-time -- on top of her real estate broker job -- to help wherever she can. She's accompanying people to the BP claims office. She's meeting with fisherfolk to discuss their concerns and recognizes with frustration how unqualified she is to talk to them about fights in their marriages. She's sending testimonials to the state judiciary, in an attempt to force Mississippi to expand assistance opportunities.

And all the while, she's worrying about what the future holds. She sees families falling behind on mortgages -- for their homes and their boats. At about $1 million a pop, many of the big Biloxi vessels require payments of $10,000 to $15,000 a month. The up to $5,000 a month that BP is paying out to captains and boat owners is of little comfort to them, especially when there are home mortgages, too, college tuition payments and more.

"They've been doing this for 45 years, 50 years of their life. They've relied on each other," Tran says. "If this drags out, it will only get worse."

Nearly 180 miles away, back over the Louisiana state line, Ngoc Nguyen is racing around with her clipboard. She and her husband own St. Vincent Seafood in Leeville, a small fishing community. It's a business they took over from her father-in-law, who's standing around the dock in his "Luck of the Irish" T-shirt.

The shrimp being unloaded off their boat amounts to a third of what they usually bring in, says Nguyen, 27. It was out for two months, but given water closures imposed because of the oil disaster, access to shrimp was limited.

"There's nothing else we can do," she says, refusing to ponder what the family's alternative would be if life doesn't get back to normal, and soon. "We've never invested in anything else. It's all seafood."

But Rep. Cao holds out hope that the Vietnamese community in the Gulf will pull through -- because it always has.

"We are resilient people. We are survivors," he says. "It's an obstacle in life, and we will overcome it. And we will emerge stronger."