By Riamarie Panachikal
With up to 1150 refugees expected to settle in the Waterloo region in the next two months, understanding the experiences of immigrants in Canada has become an important area of focus. In winter 2016, Renison University College will offer a new course that discusses narratives around immigration and refugee resettlement in Canada. ENGL 280, Literatures of Migration, will explore the diasporic experiences of various global communities as they navigate North America.
Blending together an analysis of literary and cultural study, Professor Vinh Nguyen has designed this course to critically examine the various social factors that shape the experiences of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented workers.
“I feel like one of the most important things in the classroom is for the instructor to show a sort of passion for the material. That in itself can be very contagious. If you show how you’re invested in the work, in the material, then students can pick up on that. They see it as a possibility for them to be invested as well,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen’s passion runs more deeply and personally than most. At the age of six, Nguyen, his three siblings, and his mother chose to flee Vietnam and seek safety in Thailand.
“We were boat people,” said Nguyen reflecting upon his passage into Thailand. “A lot of these stories of these boats is that they are crammed with hundreds and hundreds of people. So maybe a boat meant to carry maybe 100 people will carry 150 or 200 people, or whatever amount it was. We were on one of those.”
Shortly after Nguyen’s arrival to Thailand, his father had boarded a boat, but didn’t make the journey.
“He was lost at sea. To this day, we don’t know what happened,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen and his family lived in Thailand for three years. During this time, they moved between three refugee camps, waiting for sponsorship. Eventually his grandparents were able sponsor their arrival into Canada.
“I’m at a point and time right now where I’m able to talk about this and I think its important to people, too,” said Nguyen.
Outside his role as professor, Nguyen advocates for the protection of refugees. He is the co-founder of the group Southeast Asian Canadians for Refugees, an advocacy group that focuses on increasing awareness about the current refugee crisis.
“I think we felt like the Southeast Asian community in Canada who have very much benefited from sort of more compassionate, more generous refugee policies, that we have a sort of responsibility to do something for other refugees,” Nguyen said. The Southeast Asian Canadians for Refugee project works alongside VietCan for Syrian Lifeline, addressing fundraising and sponsorship needs.
“We envisioned it as a petition, but a petition with a little bit more flesh to it,” said Nguyen. “We asked the people, particularly former refugees and children of refugees, to recount their stories as a way of petitioning our government and our Canadian people to be more compassionate and to be more generous.”
While these stories create greater social awareness and greater advocacy, they also push for greater self-awareness within the author. “These stories are really difficult to tell and sometimes never get told — one of the values in asking is that people have a chance to look into their own histories,” said Nguyen, explaining that often writers, in their process, will discover more in depth about the challenges their family faced. “These stories serve a purpose in the present.”
“Part of our hope is asking for these stories to be told is that for us to remember how generous we can be…we can imagine a different kind of response than what’s currently being provided and what’s available,” said Nguyen.