Oil Spill Troubles Multiply Within Vietnamese Fishing Community

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BAYOU LA BATRE, AL. — Cua Huynh sits on the living room floor of her trailer and cries. The 72-year-old Vietnamese woman relied on income from shucking oysters at a nearby seafood processor, but she has been unemployed for nearly four months since the Gulf oil spill shut down the industry.

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Huynh says through a translator. “Without the oysters, it is going to be hard.”

Checks for $300 a month from the BP claims office haven’t been enough to make ends meet, so Huynh has been visiting the local food bank, walking the streets to collect aluminum cans, and selling the chickens that she raises in her back yard.

Part of the reason she is crying, she says, is from gratitude – friends and neighbors bring her food, and sometimes local stores will buy pumpkins from the sprawling vine in front of her house.

While all people who rely on the region’s seafood industry are suffering as a result of the oil spill, the Vietnamese community faces additional challenges because of the language barrier.

“A lot of information doesn’t get communicated because a lot of service providers only speak English,” says John Nguyen, a coordinator with the Vietnamese American Young Leadership Association (VAYLA) of New Orleans. “There are some interpreters but they are trying to get the information out to a population of about 40,000.”

This large community of Vietnamese immigrants trickled into America in the wake of the Vietnam War. Many, such as Huynh, came under the AmerAsian Act. She says she was one of those seeking a better life for herself and her daughter, who had been persecuted since birth because her father was a US military man.

“A lot of people were treated like they weren’t even human because they were mixed,” explains David Pham, a counselor with the nonprofit group Boat People SOS. “They were called names, spat on, not allowed to go to school.”

After arriving in America, Huynh and thousands of other immigrants were attracted to the gulf coast because they already have the skills to work in the seafood industry – as boat owners, as deckhands, or processing the catch. Roughly one third of all fishing boats along the gulf coast are owned or operated by Vietnamese immigrants or their descendants, and almost all Vietnamese-American families in the area are affected in some way by the spill.

“We don’t know how many months we’re not working,” says Loi Le, a Bayou La Batre man who also works in a seafood processing plant. “We just stay home. You go outside, you come back in. That’s all.”

Non-profit organizations such as Boat People SOS (BPSOS) are working overtime to offer support to the Vietnamese community. BPSOS, a national organization that originally formed in 1980 in Virginia, has received grants for additional translators at their offices in Biloxi and Bayou La Batre.

“Even though the oil spill has been capped the community is still reeling from this,” says Danny Le, the regional branch manager for the organization.

On an ordinary day, the small, homey office of BPSOS in Bayou La Batre is busy with a steady stream of visitors. People come by to get help with everything from filling out a deposit slip to re-writing a money order. BPSOS staff also host food banks and informational meetings to keep community members up-to-date on the BP claims process.

“It’s a lot on your shoulders,” says Pham, sitting at his desk cluttered with papers. “Giving school supplies and passing out food and making sure they get their assistance helps for right now, but what happens down the line when the oil spill affects us for ten years, and the benefits run out?”

The compounding problems that have unfolded since the oil spill have not yet let up. The initial logistical challenges of applying for claims checks and jobs working on the cleanup effort have escalated into more entrenched poverty.

Very few of the cleanup jobs have gone to the Vietnamese community, Pham and Nguyen say. Meanwhile the claims checks don’t always come regularly – and even when they do, they often aren’t enough.

“People need any kind of assistance at this point whether it’s big or little,” Danny Le says. “Communities are struggling both financially and psychologically.”

For example, many married couples both worked in the seafood industry and now are both unemployed. Staying home all day, especially under stress, is hard on everyone – individuals, couples and families.

“The stereotype of Asian people is that we’re really shy and reserved, but now you’re seeing families arguing in public,” Pham says. “That really says something.”

To cope with the stress, men will often go sit on their fishing boat as a form of therapy. “It’s sad, but they aren’t used to seeing their kids all day,” he adds.

Drinking, depression and gambling all have increased in the community, according to Pham and Nguyen. The gambling particularly worries Pham in light of claims chief Ken Feinberg’s proposal to disperse payments in lump sums.

“The problem is that in the Asian community it’s not a stigma to go to the casino, even if you have no money,” Pham says. “It’s just part of our culture. So if you give them a check for $6,000 you can imagine where that is going to go.”

In yet another problem assailing the Bayou La Batre community called “little Vietnam,” law firms are sending Vietnamese speakers to get residents to sign a document that says the firm will represent them in the claims process, Pham says.

Yet the residents are told a different story entirely as to what the document says. Many don’t realize they have been scammed until BP representatives refuse to speak to them because they are being represented by a lawyer.

“It makes me angry, because it discredits what we are doing,” Pham says. “People wonder whether they can trust us, as well. It’s just one thing after another.”

(Photos by Jacoba Charles)

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