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Last Vietnamese Refugees Leave Philippines for Canada

A chapter of history is closing in the Philippines as the last Vietnamese refugees in the country head for Canada in a humanitarian program called Freedom At Last. They are the last of an estimated 2,500 Vietnamese refugees who fled to the Philippines over the decades following the fall of Saigon to the Communists in 1975. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila.

Hoan Le was 12 years old when he came to the Philippines by boat with his 19-year-old brother in 1989. His father had served in the South Vietnamese military, which fought the Communists from North Vietnam. After the North won the war, the family suffered discrimination in employment, education and other areas so Le and his brother fled the country.

Initially Le was in a refugee camp on the Philippine island of Palawan, which he fled in 1996. He was able to get an education as a computer technician, but he was not allowed to get formal employment because of his refugee status. Like most Vietnamese here he made a living selling products such as Vietnamese perfume and ointment door-to-door, and worked with community groups that help Vietnamese refugees.

For almost two decades Le has lived in the shadows, waiting for a chance to settle permanently overseas. No job, no country, no legal status, no future and almost no hope.

But, while life was difficult, the Philippines gave him a temporary home. Aside from initial difficult times at the refugee camp, where he says the staff fought with and cheated refugees, Le has warm feelings for the country where he grew up.

"After the camp I was able to study in school and then I got some friends. We talk to them, we share to [with] them and we come to their families. ….so we more understand them, and the culture and themselves individually," he said. "And we are getting more close to the Filipinos … the Filipinos are very friendly and they are hospitable."

Le notes there are big differences between the Filipino and Vietnamese cultures. He appreciates the carefree and accepting attitude of the Filipino people.

"The Filipinos are more open-minded. The Vietnamese [are] more traditional," he said. "And the Filipinos are not working hard. They are not patient. They love to enjoy, even if they don't have money."

Le is among 139 Vietnamese refugees, along with 177 of their children and non-Vietnamese spouses that Canada has pledged to take. They are leaving with the help of a program the Vietnamese call Freedom At Last. The first refugees went to Canada in March. By the end of the year, all will be gone.

Organizers of Freedom at Last say a few Vietnamese with businesses have chosen to stay in the Philippines, and there may be others in remote areas the resettlement program has not been able to contact. But otherwise, this program will end the refugee saga in the Philippines.

Many of this group were not accepted by previous resettlement programs because they had Filipino family ties, and were seen as less in need. Others were not classified as refugees, which made them ineligible for resettlement.

Le's brother was resettled in the United States in 2005, but Le was not accepted. His brother was seen as a political case because he left Vietnam at age 19 and had suffered discrimination. But Le was a minor when he fled Vietnam, and he says it was ruled that he should be with his parents.

Le hopes to go to Canada later this year. He plans to get more computer education there and go to work setting up computer networks. He also wants to lobby for political change in Communist-ruled Vietnam.

The Freedom at Last program comes after years of lobbying by the Vietnamese-Canadian community. A U.S. group called VOICE, Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment, also sponsors the program. VOICE country director Thi Nguyen says the refugees have faced quite a struggle.

"It's a hard life. But we are really resilient, as you can tell," said Nguyen. "This is the last remaining program that they can go into. So, if for any reason, they miss this boat, then they are stuck here in the Philippines."

Nguyen says the effort has gotten strong support from the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, and the International Red Cross. She says, however, money to get the final refugees to Canada is tight. She estimates it will take $500,000 to $1 million to end their long wait for a new home and she is not sure where that money will come from.