Dispelling myths about refugees and their life experiences
Waterloo English professor wins prestigious Polanyi Prize to continue to examine the shared connections among Vietnamese, Syrian and Mennonite refugees
Waterloo English professor wins prestigious Polanyi Prize to continue to examine the shared connections among Vietnamese, Syrian and Mennonite refugeesBy Kira Vermond University Communications
When the heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy, made global headlines in 2015, it galvanized many Canadians into action.
But for Vinh Nguyen, an English professor in the Faculty of Arts, the moment signaled something else: a time for former Vietnamese refugees to contemplate how their own memories of displacement and loss connect them to Syrians.
Nguyen is a refugee himself, one of the three million people who fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after 1975, during a period of great upheaval and violence. As a small child, he spent time at a Thai refugee camp before eventually coming to Canada.
Today, Nguyen, also a professor of humanities and East Asian studies at Renison University College, is quick to point out that his family’s migration is only one chapter of his life’s story. Nguyen’s work examines how refugee narratives are often depicted solely in terms of trauma, rather than describing them as they truly are: richly textured and full of fears, hopes and day-to-day frustrations and joys.
“In the media there’s a sense that refugees are these people who are poor, helpless and at the edge of death,” he says. “That’s true, of course, but these people were also students, artists, writers, professors and waitresses. We need a more complex narrative.”
Now, with his prestigious 2017 Polanyi Prize in Literature win, Nguyen will be able to continue exploring the shared historical and political connections between three “waves” of refugees in the postwar era. He’s interviewing recent refugees from Syria, those from Vietnam, and survivors of a major wave of Mennonite immigration to Canada during and after the Second World War. By collecting their stories, he plans to use that material to dispel myths that refugees are apolitical or passive.
For instance, Vietnamese refugees in Toronto advocated on behalf of new Syrian refugees and also sponsored them, while Mennonites supported Vietnamese refugees during their migration wave in the 1970s and 1980s. In a sense, a refugee never truly stops being a refugee – which is not necessarily a negative thing.
“I think for me, it’s productive to think of the condition of ‘refugee’ as sticking with us in some way that can enable compassion and politics, and how we live our lives in a very different way,” says Nguyen.