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Refugees in Alabama Become Backbone of Fishing Industry, Community

When groups of Southeast Asians boarded ships bound for American soil in the '70s, many of them had no idea where they were going, but they knew they were escaping wars in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Now, some of these people live in a place that is both likely and unlikely as a destination for refugees settling in the U.S.: Bayou La Batre, the seafood capital of Alabama, where shrimp is king.

In many cases, those who fled the Southeast Asian wars rode away in family fishing boats and met the U.S. military at sea.

“We didn’t know we were coming to the United States until they got everybody off of the ship in Guam," said Dung Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American shrimper. "At that time, I knew we were going to the United States.”

For a while, though Nguyen's family stayed on the tiny Western Pacific island.

“They had a camp there," he said. "We stayed in the camp for about two, three months, and then we had a sponsor — go to Panama City [Florida].”

A sponsor is supposed to help immigrants transition to new lives in the U.S., but Nguyen said it didn’t happen that way for him.

“We signed a contract with the sponsor," he said, but "when we came to Panama City, anybody who worked for him — for a three-month contract — you didn’t get paid nothing.”

Nguyen’s father eventually found a familiar work environment — on the water, doing what he'd done in Vietnam — and he brought his family along. But the shrimping business was hard work.

For people like Nguyen's brother-in-law, though, it’s the only life they've ever known.

“My parents do the same job before over in Vietnam," Nghin Nguyen said. The difference today, he said, is that the operation has moved "from small boat to the big boat.”

While the immigrants were not always welcomed by the local population, it’s hard to imagine this industry without them today.

“It’s really given us a good line of support for help, because without them here now, I don’t know what business would be left,” said Dominick Ficarino of Dominick's Seafood.

The former Southeast Asians are far from their native countries now, working in conditions that are less than ideal. But now their home is a place far from war.