1960s >> Nguyen Mai >> Vietnam

Nguyen Mai. Photo © UNHCR/Aislinn Delaney Originally we lived in South Vietnam and at the time the country was undergoing a dramatic political change. Under communist rule living conditions proved to be very difficult. Food rationing was a major problem with only 20KG of rice per month to feed a family of 6 children. Children from different backgrounds were denied education and some families were under constant surveillance by the Vietcong. My parents were left with no choice but to leave Vietnam in order to ensure their children had a good and safe future.

We made three attempts to leave Vietnam. Two attempts were made under stormy conditions, the first one ending in tragedy for some of the boat people. Of six boats containing 200 people on each, four capsized and only two made it back to Vietnamese shores. Luckily for my family we were on one of those two boats and eventually our third attempt was a successful one. We sailed for four days before arriving in Hong Kong - Chi Ma Wan (a camp where thousands of Vietnamese boat people were accommodated). At the time the Irish Government was accepting Vietnamese refugees to Ireland and fifty families signed up.

The UNHCR representative told the refugees that Ireland was a poor country with very high unemployment. Regardless of this fact my parents opted to go to Ireland because I was very sick at the time and they didn’t want to wait for another offer. When we arrived in Ireland we were greeted by the late Brian Lenihan Snr. All fifty families that arrived with us were placed in Blanchardstown Hospital for 6 months before they were housed elsewhere.

"Of six boats containing 200 people on each, four capsized and only two made it back to Vietnamese shores. Luckily for my family we were on one of those two boats."

My parents found it very difficult to adjust to Ireland initially as there were many changes for them. They couldn’t speak English and didn’t understand the Irish culture. Eventually, however, my family integrated into the Irish way of life. My parents learnt English and quickly found schools for my brothers, sisters and I.

I think it was easier for me to integrate into Irish society as I was only two when we first arrived in Ireland. I was brought up with two cultures, the Vietnamese culture and the Irish culture but I feel completely Irish because I have lived here for so long now.

I was initially slightly reluctant to participate in UNHCR’s 60th anniversary exhibition due to the term “Refugee” in itself as I felt that the use of the term would be like labelling a person. But I gave it more thought and considered the work of the UNHCR over their 60 years and how they have accomplished so much in aiding people and offering them protection and decided I wanted to be a part of this project.
Nyugen Mai.

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