35 years on, where are Israel’s Vietnamese refugees?

Amid Israel’s debate over absorbing Syrian refugees, focus turns to the integration of the boat people from Vietnam who arrived in the 1970s

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Newly arrived refugees from Vietnam ride the bus to the Ben Gurion Airport arrivals terminal, June 26, 1977 (Moshe Milner/GPO)
Newly arrived refugees from Vietnam ride the bus to the Ben Gurion Airport arrivals terminal, June 26, 1977 (Moshe Milner/GPO)

As hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers risk their lives to reach Europe, Israeli political and religious leaders have called on the government to take in Syrian refugees. But opponents, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argue that Israel is too small, or that Israel should not accept migrants from an enemy state.

Amid the debate, attention has once again turned to the time in history when Israel did accept refugees from a faraway conflict. From 1977 to 1979, then prime minister Menachem Begin welcomed about 360 Vietnamese boat people fleeing for their lives from the Communist takeover of their country. Israel granted them citizenship, full rights and government-subsidized apartments.

How did these refugees fare in the Promised Land? Are they still living in Israel? Can their circumstances shed light on the current debate over refugees?

If you Google “Vietnamese refugees Israel,” one of the first names that comes up is that of Vaan Nguyen, a poet and actress in her early 30s who was the subject of a tear-jerking 2005 documentary, “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen,” about the Israeli-born daughter of Vietnamese refugees growing up between two cultures.

Newly arrived refugees being greeted at Ben Gurion Airport by fellow Vietnamese already in Israel, January, 1979 (Photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Newly arrived refugees being greeted at Ben Gurion Airport by fellow Vietnamese already in Israel, January 24, 1979 (Moshe Milner/GPO)

Vaan Nguyen says she would be happy to be interviewed when her book of poetry is translated from Hebrew into English but declines an interview on the subject of Vietnamese refugees.

“I’ve gotten tons of requests for interviews,” she writes with a note of weariness. “You can look at my list of Facebook friends and write to the Vietnamese ones. Most of them are children of refugees.”

Vaan Nguyen in a still from the 2005 film "The Journey of Vaan Nguyen" (Photo credit: Courtesy Duki Dror)
Vaan Nguyen in a still from the 2005 film “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” (Courtesy: Duki Dror)

The Times of Israel sent messages to about 15 of Vaan Nguyen’s Facebook friends as well as to an additional five Vietnamese Israelis found from other sources. Only one of these 20 people replied, writing, “Hi! I’m not interested, thanks.”

Dr. Sabine Huynh is an accomplished translator and author who fled Vietnam for France as a child in 1976. She has lived in Israel for the last 15 years and although she is not one of the refugees taken in by Israel, she has ties to the community.

Sabine Huynh (Photo credit: Facebook)
Sabine Huynh (Facebook)

Huynh says she has been contacted by journalists looking to talk about Vietnamese refugees but prefers not to get involved.

But Huynh does mention that she wrote a sociological research project about the Vietnamese-Israeli refugees in 2008, one that was never published even though people told her it should be. She also recommends watching Duki Dror’s 2005 film (which can be downloaded here) to better understand the community.

Vietnamese sabras

Writing in 2008, Huynh describes the tension between a first generation of Vietnamese refugees who socialize mostly with each other and their sabra, or native-born, children who have Israeli friends and who switch back and forth between Vietnamese and Hebrew.

A perusal of some of their Facebook profiles reveals a second generation with Vietnamese names who are deeply integrated into Israeli society. Most communicate on their walls in Hebrew, have a majority of Israeli friends, attended Israeli high schools and appear to have served in the IDF. One works for the police. Of those who are married, many have Israeli spouses.

“Using the Vietnamese vernacular is a symbol of adherence to the old established Vietnamese community,” Huynh says. “Showing vernacular loyalty is equivalent to showing community loyalty.”

In “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen,” 21-year-old Vaan’s father, Hoi May Nyugen, speaks to her in Vietnamese and she often answers him in Hebrew. On a visit to Vietnam her uncle admonishes her, “You have to nurture your Vietnamese characteristics. Otherwise, you’ll be a foreigner and your kids will be foreign.”

Vaan describes how growing up, when her friends asked if she was fasting on Yom Kippur, she would often say yes, because it was easier.

“I was embarrassed by my parents and then I would apologize for them and hate the white, condescending society. I became angry and rude and ended up hating myself, looking for ways to reconcile everyone. I was ungrateful to my family, the state [of Israel], community of any kind,” she says.

Her parents, meanwhile, while grateful to have been taken in, are consumed with longing for Vietnam and the idea of returning there. The problem is the Communists confiscated the family’s lands and have no intention of returning them, as becomes clear in the course of the film.

“There is nothing for me here,” says Vaan’s mother to Vaan’s younger sister, Hong Wa, in the documentary. “I want to go back and be with your grandmother. I will take you with me. None of my girls learned how to write. You can learn the Vietnamese alphabet so that when your father and I die you can write to the family.”

But Hong Wa bursts into tears. I want to stay in Israel, she says.

The minority who stayed

According to a spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Tel Aviv, there are 150-200 refugees and their descendants still living in Israel. Huynh adds that more than half of the original Vietnamese refugees have left Israel, mostly for Europe and North America, where they were reunited with their extended families.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin greets Vietnamese refugees who were absorbed in Afula, June 26, 1980 Photo credit: Herman Chanania/GPO)
Prime minister Menachem Begin greets Vietnamese refugees who were absorbed in Afula, June 26, 1980 (Herman Chanania/GPO)

One of the most famous emigres is Dao Wong, who headed Bank Hapoalim’s operations in Singapore and now resides in Switzerland.

“I think the main motivation for leaving was to connect to a bigger community in Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Duki Dror, the film’s director, tells The Times of Israel. “They would like to preserve their cultural continuity and here it’s hard to do.”

Of the refugees who stayed in Israel, most live in or near Jaffa and Bat Yam.

As part of her research, Huynh approached 32 families — over 150 people — with a request to fill out the questionnaire she had designed; only 34 agreed. Eight of 25 second-generation refugees Huynh interviewed said they worked in the food preparation industry, many at Asian-themed restaurants, while others worked in factories and some first-generation women worked as hotel chambermaids.

Out of 34 people surveyed (both first- and second-generation), 14 had only primary education, while 13 also had some secondary education and five attended college (three in Israel and two in Vietnam). Sixteen were Buddhist, seven were Catholic, 10 claimed to follow no religion and one had converted to Judaism.

In a recent article in Ynet, Vaan Nguyen said she herself is undergoing a Reform conversion to Judaism.

Forgotten, yet all too visible

One scene in Duki Dror’s film shows the kind of attention Vietnamese-Israelis attract even when they are behaving like everyone else. Here, Vaan accompanies her family to the IDF induction center where her 18-year-old sister, Tihu, is about to join the army. Hundreds of tearful parents are sending off their children and the Nguyen family is no exception.

“Where are you from? “ the induction soldier asks Tihu.

“From Vietnam,” she says in unaccented Hebrew.

“You must have made aliyah [immigrated] a long time ago?”

“Aliyah? I was born here.”

“Are you the first Vietnamese person to join the army?

“No, there have been others.”

Then Tihu asks sheepishly, “Can I change my name?”

Sabine Huynh is all too familiar with the feeling of extra scrutiny in a country where people of East Asian descent comprise a tiny percentage of the population.

“People constantly mistake me for a Filipino, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean…(sigh).”

In the film, Vaan Nguyen describes the ordeal a simple trip to the grocery store could be.

“I want to go to the grocery store without people invading my privacy. Stop asking me questions because something about me is suspicious or because you think I’m fascinating,” she declares.

“Enough with the interrogations and the expectation that I will politely respond that I was born in Israel, that my parents came as Vietnamese refugees in 1979 when the late Menachem Begin, as a humanitarian gesture, decided to absorb some boat people out of a historical Jewish identification with the conditions of persecution and exile.”

She goes on: “No, I am not Jewish. No, I don’t know if I’ll convert or if my children will be circumcised. Yes, I am equally sorry for every human being that died in the last intifada. I don’t deny the Holocaust…I have no idea how to tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean people. No, I don’t think my eyes are slanted because I ate rice every day as a child…No, I am not related to Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.”

“Now will you please just let me live in peace?”

In her paper, Huynh writes that the Vietnamese refugee community has mixed feelings about attention from the broader society.

“Their existence here was born from an Israeli prime minister’s initiative, but [the community’s] people, after receiving Israeli citizenship, were almost completely forgotten, to the point that they are now constantly mistaken for foreign workers from Asia. Moreover, since they have mixed feelings about that, they do not want any attention drawn to themselves. ‘If they forgot us, then let it be, let us be forgotten for good,’ was a sentence I heard often.”

An encounter in a Chinese restaurant

Determined to interview Vietnamese refugees, this reporter discovered a restaurant in Bat Yam that was described on the Internet as “the best Chinese restaurant you’ve never heard of,” owned by a husband-and-wife team of Vietnamese refugees.

Bat Yam is as shabby as Tel Aviv is fashionable but the Pek-Hai Chinese restaurant, located near the beach, has retro-1980s decor and a hipster clientele.

Asked if he could be interviewed, a 50-ish Vietnamese man smoking outside said, “No, I am just a cook, go inside and talk to the management.”

Inside the Peh-Hai Chinese Restaurant (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Inside the Peh-Hai Chinese Restaurant (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Inside, a woman who appeared to be his wife, said in fluent Hebrew, “No, my Hebrew is not good enough.”

Why do you think people in the Vietnamese community are so reluctant to be interviewed?

The woman smiles and shrugs.

Is it because you want to be left in peace?

The woman nods, a glint of assent in her eye, then looks away. The conversation is over.

A peaceful life

In Dror’s film, archival footage shows a Jewish Agency teacher lecturing the refugees on their new life in Israel

“I ask a question,” he says in Yiddish-inflected English. “What can you do here? If you want to be honest citizens and you want to join us in our peaceful life here, you have to learn maybe new ways of living, new ways of behavior. And try to work honestly wherever it is possible, to enable your families a good, peaceful life.”

Vietnamese arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport, January 24, 1979 (Photo credit: Sa'ar Ya'acov/GPO)
Vietnamese arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport, January 24, 1979 (Sa’ar Ya’acov/GPO)

Working hard and living peacefully is more or less what the refugees did.

According to Huynh, the refugees she met worked an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week. Vaan Nguyen describes how her parents spent a lot of time working while she was growing up.

“My parents weren’t at home a lot and so what I got from my childhood was Israeliness. As much as they tried to make me Vietnamese, they didn’t succeed. Well, maybe a bit.”

There is a thread of sadness that runs through the documentary, the heartbreak of immigrant parents watching their children grow up with foreign ideas, habits and aspirations. At the same time, the children feel torn between embracing the new culture and feeling rejected by it, while wanting to reject it in return out of loyalty to their parents.

Vaan Nguyen with her father (Courtesy Duki Dror)
Vaan Nguyen with her father (Courtesy: Duki Dror)

In fact, the State of Israel was founded by people who faced a dilemma similar to Vaan Nguyen’s. Modern Hebrew writers like Micha Yosef Berdichevsky and Yosef Chaim Brenner had left the shtetl but couldn’t feel at home in Israel either.

Berdichevsky wrote, “If God [leads a person] to wander far from the city of their birth, the land of their forefathers into exile, they will open their eyes in the new place and look around but in their heart they will always carry the memory of their father and mother for the rest of their life. Whatever happens to them, the air of their homeland will rest in the secret places of their soul, like the light of a new moon..and whoever is not this way, who can easily throw off the majestic feelings of their youth, is not a creature of God.”

Duki Dror (via Facebook)
Duki Dror (via Facebook)

Among second-generation Vietnamese Israelis, writes Huynh, there are various coping strategies: some assimilate, some emigrate and a minority express loyalty to their Vietnamese roots by marrying spouses from Vietnam and speaking Vietnamese at home.

But when a community is so small, assimilation is almost inevitable. That’s why Begin’s absorption of a mere 360 Vietnamese refugees (out of a total of 2 million worldwide) may or may not be a test case for welcoming future asylum seekers. Assimilation is painful, perhaps not for the host culture, but for the people pressured to give up a way of life passed down for generations.

In the meantime, Israel’s tiny Vietnamese minority is not keen on talking to reporters.

“I think the Vietnamese community aren’t publicity hounds,” Duki Dror, the film’s director tells the Times of Israel. “They’re low-key. Also, they feel more and more Israeli, so they don’t all of a sudden want to talk about how they are different. Refugees are an issue that is controversial. On the one hand they would probably say, ‘Of course [they should be let in], that’s how millions of Vietnamese were saved and we contribute to society.’ On the other hand they don’t want to take a position against the state or the people who are opposed to bringing Syrian refugees here.”

As for the community itself, a handful have given interviews to Hebrew media. Vaan Nguyen herself gave an indication of her feelings in a recent article she wrote in Ynet.

“Whenever there is a humanitarian crisis somewhere, I get calls from various media outlets asking to interview me about the refugee experience. I don’t feel like a refugee. I’m the daughter of refugees.”

Nevertheless, she writes, “compassion has no race and Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] will only enhance his resume if he absorbs a few hundred refugees who will not change Israel’s demographic balance one iota. My family is not thriving here, but they have hope and a future. It’s all relative: at least we’re alive.”

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