Operation MAGNET: One refugee shares her story

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Thi Be Nguyen. (Photo: Cpl Talbot)
Thi Be Nguyen arrived in Montreal in 1980 at the age of four with her family. She was one of the Vietnamese refugees welcomed by Canada during Operation MAGNET I.

By immigrating to Canada, the Nguyen family was able to find a sense of security and see the light at the end of the tunnel. It also gave Ms. Nguyen the opportunity to access higher education and obtain a Bachelor of Commerce from Concordia University in 1998. Ms. Nguyen is passionate about social engagement, and she founded UniAction in 2014 while pursuing her career. This non-profit organization is aimed at raising awareness about different social issues such as poverty, access to education and healthcare for underprivileged families.

Through the organization’s UniAction Films branch, it produces, promotes and distributes films that raise awareness about social issues and social inclusion. The documentary A Moonless Night: Boat People, 40 Years Later, released in fall 2016, gives a voice to the people who were in the refugee camps and who stayed briefly at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Montreal when they arrived in Canada. It is a testament to the courage and resiliency that they showed in order to settle and put down roots in their new homeland.

How did you arrive in Canada?

At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, I was in Laos, which had also been invaded by the Communist Party, when my father decided to flee the country. Our first attempt was in 1978: we were hunted through the jungle by the authorities, who fired on us in order to arrest us. We were imprisoned until my uncle was able to find a general who knew my father well to free us. The second attempt was in 1979. My father always said we were smarter that time. We fled through the jungle and across the Mekong River on a moonless night so it was harder to detect us. Thus, we made it to refugee camps in Thailand (Nong Khai and Sikiew). We lived there a year before coming to Canada in 1980 as refugees.

What is your earliest memory?

My memories of my childhood are hazy––it’s as if I never existed in my native country. I don’t remember the war, bombs going off, the atrocities that might have happened during that time in my life, but I know that they were real and that they are part of my youth.

However, I remember being welcomed by two women who were our sponsors and who made a big difference in my life: Carol Latimer and Roz Abrahamson. More recently, when I revisited Montreal Garrison for the filming of the documentary, one of the photos that Major (Ret) Jacques Coiteux had brought me back. It was the memory of the food we received when we were housed on base: we had boiled eggs every day! My mother continued to make them for us every morning and put them in our lunch boxes.

What have the Canadian Armed Forces done for you?

It is only recently that I have realized the role and impact that the Canadian Armed Forces have had in my life, when my father told me that the military in Montreal had come to pick us up from the airport when we immigrated to Canada. Thus, I started researching and reading for my documentary. I was put in contact with Montreal Garrison Public Affairs for the filming of a very important component of the documentary explaining the contribution of the Canadian Armed Forces in welcoming Vietnamese refugees between 1978 and 1981.

Even though the members at CFB Montreal only took care of my family for four days, this welcome was important. My visit to the garrison, which was very moving and informative, and filming with Maj (Ret) Coiteux filled a void from my childhood that I hadn’t known had existed up to that point. I discovered something else about the military. It’s not just about weapons and war; it’s also about helping out and ensuring people’s safety.

I am proud of the remarkable and inspiring work done by the members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and I have a deep appreciation for those who helped us, for they present a positive image of our new home—Canada!

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