by Jake Buhler,
MCC Thailand Country Representative, 1981-1987
From 1981 to 1987 I served as MCC’s Country Representative in Thailand. One of my main roles was overseeing MCC’s work in the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp. This camp, in Chonburi Province, Thailand, was the largest holding camp in the country for Indochinese refugees who had been cleared for resettlement to Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Immigration officers from various embassies would constantly be coming in and out of the camp to interview refugees.
There were three kinds of refugees at Phanat Nikhom: Vietnamese, Camobdian, and Laotian.
There were two groups of Vietnamese at the camp: boat people, who had landed in the Malay Peninsula section of Thailand and who had previously been held in a camp near Songkhla, and a second, smaller group who were not eligible for resettlement: military officers and soldiers of the now-defunction Sài Gòn Government. This group were kept at a special camp at Sikiew.
The second group of refugees were Cambodians, also called Khmer, or Kampucheans. Those eligible for resettlement had come from the camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. The largest of those camps was at Aranyaprathet. When the Vietnamese swept across Cambodia in 1979, they drove the Khmer Rouge and many others to the border with Thailand. The Americans supported the resistance to the Vietnamese military effort, which included the Khmer Rouge, Sihanoukists (monarchists), and the Sonn San group. In 1980, MCC became part of the Land Bridge Support Group supporting Cambodians. Most Cambodians, though, were not eligible for resettlement.
The third group were from Laos, and were also subdivided. Lowland Lao spoke Lao and were primarily economic migrants — they had only to cross the Mekong and go to any one of many Lao refugee camps to apply for resettlement. The second group from Laos were the Hmong ethnic group, of course speaking their own language. About a third of Hmong in Lao were neutral during the conflict and remained in Laos, while another third were supporters of the Lao Daeng (Red Lao), who supported the Communists who took over in 1975. They also remained in Laos. The final third, almost all of whom eventually left Laos, were strong supporters of the U.S.’s military effort. Their leader was Van Pao, who later made his way to the U.S. and told his followers among the Hmong who had come to North America to return to Laos and fight against the Communists. One thousand Hmong were resettled around Kitchener-Waterloo between 1975 and 1979. Mennonites were involved in this work, but only with a small percentage of them. This resettlement was very successful. Tens of thousands of Hmong from the same group were also resettled in the U.S., mostly in Minnesota. After 1979, many fewer Hmong came through the camps, and most of the Lao resettled in Canada between 1979 and 1989 were Lowland Lao.
During my time with MCC in Thailand, I worked with refugees from all three countries, but I mostly worked with Vietnamese, Cambodians, and ethnic Lao. There were more than 25 different camps. The most crucial work, though, was in Phanat Nikhom. MCC set up an orientation and advocacy program where all refugees from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia would participate. Key people over the years were Fred and Shirley Reddekopp and Henry and Tena Neufeld. Their tasks were to give basic orientation to all refugees about life in Canada. There were language classes as well. Refugees who would not be leaving the camp soon were trained to assist in the program — some of these folks remained in the camp for up to four years. Very importantly, MCC also did advocacy work and communicated with the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok. We also accompanied refugees on the bus ride to the airport on departure days. MCC Thailand also coordinated with MCC’s office in Winnipeg, particularly working together and sharing information about those who were sponsored by Mennonite churches.
In total, from 1979 to 1989 there were around 5,000 Lao, Khmer, and Vietnamese that were sponsored by about 550 Mennonite churches in Canada. The definition of sponsorship was to cover 100% of the cost of housing, food, clothing, and incidental charges for the initial 12 months after arrival. During this time, the newly arrived refugees studied English, and the sponsors helped refugees to find employment and generally settle in in Canada.
While MCC and other Mennonite groups in the U.S. also sponsored Southeast Asian refugees, far more were settled in Canada. Why? I trace this back mostly to differing memories of our own immigration to the New World. Mennonites in the U.S. had arrived from Switzerland and Germany with the Penn movement in the 1700s. They had no memory of resettlement. The second big wave of Mennonites to arrive in the U.S. was in 1874, coming from Ukraine and Eastern Europe. The descendants of that group also had no memory of resettlement. But the 20,000 Mennonites that came to Canada from eastern Europe in the 1920s had strong memories of their journey, and thousands more came to Canada as Umsiedler after World War Two.
Victor Neumann: The Man who cared for Refugees
When I first met Victor he was in southern Thailand, working on the beaches outside of Songkhla City. An MCC worker, he had volunteered to work with the Boat People who were arriving from Vietnam. The year was 1980.
I followed Victor around in a makeshift camp run by the Thai military. The temperature was nearly 40 degrees Celsius, and the salty air made your lips chafe.
“Here,” he said, “is the boat that came in yesterday. It carried 23 people. Two didn’t make it because they were swept overboard. They were attacked by fishermen-pirates who took all their belongings.”
I stepped into the empty boat and tried to imagine the fear, uncertainty, hunger, and sun burnt skin of the boat’s occupants.
Songkhla Camp was the receiving center where thousands of Boat People were kept after their landing on the various beaches. The camp is 500 kilometers from southern Vietnam, and it took a small diesel engine boat over three days to make that journey. Those on board prayed for good weather and hoped pirates would not harm them as they neared Thailand. Not all boats made it. Thousands drowned over the years.
Victor’s job was to comfort new arrivals. He ran the post office that linked refugees with their homeland. He handed out MCC blankets. He was there to care. Sometimes, Victor would go out to sea with Thai officials when a refugee boat was spotted. And for five crucial years, he was a familiar sight driving his white pick-up to and from the camp.
One of the people he got to know and work with was Nguyễn Văn Ngo. Ngo was an educated government official who spoke several languages, and he became Victor’s assistant. It took several years before Ngo’s application was finally processed and he was accepted by Canada.
When the camp was closed after refugee flows decreased, Victor could have gone back to British Columbia, but instead he volunteered to cross Thailand, to work along the Thai-Burmese border. Thousands of ethnic Karen refugees had fled there, fleeing the hostilities of the Burmese military. Victor joined a group called Burmese Border Consortium, and he distributed food in Karen camps for six years. I sometimes visited him in camps along the Mooi River.
This is what Victor did, but who was he? What motivated him to give so many years of his life to refugee resettlement?
Victor and his twin brother Peter were born in the Soviet Union in 1937. When the Soviets won the battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the defeated German army retreated, taking 350,000 German speaking residents with them. 35,000 of this group were Mennonites. All were in peril. Victor, his mother, and his three siblings joined the group. His father had previously been arrested and executed.
The journey of these people is known as the Great Trek. The Soviet army was in hot pursuit throughout the march, and they briefly caught up to the caravan in Poland. In the confusion of this attack, Victor’s mother was separated from the family and was captured. Victor would not see his mother for 25 years — she was sent to Siberia and was one of few to survive. Many more of the 35,000 Mennonites never made it to safety.
In 1945, Victor and his siblings reached an MCC refugee camp in Holland. A year later, his family were resettled in British Columbia. Victor grew and eventually became a teacher, working with remote Indeginous communities in the north of the province.
His everlasting gratitude to MCC for receiving and resettling him when he was a child refugee became an inner burden. He felt he had to do something to repay his debt to MCC and help others in need. Eventually, he sold all his belongings and went to Thailand to work with refugees.
When his years of service finally ended, Victor returned to Abbotsford, British Columbia. He found a small apartment and settled in. He soon found work volunteering at the MCC Center there, which he did for many more years.
I met Victor again a few months ago. He told me “I feel old and useless, and I wish I could get out and volunteer for MCC again. I volunteer here in my retirement center. It’s the best I can do.”
Victor was a man who did his best. He never owned a cell phone, or a computer, or a TV, but he gave much of himself to help those in need.
Top Left: Victor, Peter, and Katharina Friesen on February 6, 1946, in Roverstein, Holland.
Top Right: Victor with a boat arriving to the Songkhla camp, circa 1985.
Center Left: Victor with his trusty truck, 1984.
Center Right: Victor with two Karen orphans, circa 1990.
Bottom: Victor on the Songkhla beach, 1984.