Unsung Heroes of the BP Spill: Vietnamese American Youth

Unsung Heroes of the BP Spill: Vietnamese American Youth

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—High school senior Anna Nguyen already had her hands full applying to colleges. Then the BP spill occurred, and suddenly the Louisiana 17-year-old had another priority: helping her family to recover from her father’s sudden loss of income.

“It’s been hard for my dad to find a new job because most of his life he’s been self-employed as a fisherman, even before he came to the United States,” Anna explained Friday.

Although her father is receiving a monthly $5,000 check from BP, a huge chunk goes to medical bills—he is diabetic and Anna’s mother has osteoporosis. Anna’s mother, meanwhile, brings in some income from her job at a tea and coffee factory, where she works six days a week.

Anna, a member of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO), was in the nation’s capital to mark the 100th day of the oil spill and to publicize the plight of the Vietnamese-American fishing community in the wake of the disaster. These days, she said, one of her chief responsibilities is guiding her family through the complicated claims process.

“Me and my sister are doing the application for my dad,” she said, “and it’s hard to translate from Vietnamese to English when we don’t know what the settlement is about.”

As their immigrant elders struggle to come to terms with the oil catastrophe, it is young people like Anna who are taking a lead role, forcing BP and the federal government to pay more attention to the needs of the Vietnamese community, said Minh Nguyen, VAYLA’s 25-year-old founder and executive director.

A $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Fund will be distributed to victims, he said, but it’s unclear how the independent administrator, Kenneth Feinberg, will allocate the money.

At a recent community forum that discussed this new claims system, Minh Nguyen asked if Feinberg had any Vietnamese Americans on staff, since they represent one-third of Gulf Coast fishermen. Feinberg said no.

“There’s going to be a three-member panel to give the appeals, so we think it’s right to have someone who is culturally competent on the panel,” Minh Nguyen said at Friday’s community briefing in the U.S. Capitol, hosted by VAYLA and the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations (uNAVSA). “And it would be great if it was a Vietnamese American,” he added.

Already, the claims process has been difficult for many. “It was really challenging for Vietnamese fisher folks to put in a claim because they didn’t speak the language and weren’t prepared,” he said.

“We must approach this crisis with a multi-generational response,” added uNAVSA’s program director, Dan Nguyen. “Because not only does this affect the current generation, but future generations of Vietnamese Americans in the Gulf Coast.”

VAYLA has been working hard bringing attorneys to New Orleans to help the fishermen learn about filing claims and understand their rights. Minh Nguyen said the group has received a grant to pay a full-time staffer to provide legal education services.

Miya Chen, with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, thanked the young people for sharing their stories and welcomed their input on the issues they’ve been dealing with in New Orleans. “D.C. can be very disconnected to what’s happening on the ground, but this administration is listening to your voices,” she said.

“In Vietnamese tradition, the 100th day after the passing of a loved one is marked as a sacred day of commemoration,” said Song Park, campaign director of VAYLA. “We observe today as the 100th day after thousands of fishermen in the Gulf Coast have lost their livelihood to the oil disaster.”