“Boat People” Reunion Part of 60th Celebrations!

Social Action has always been central to life at Temple Emanu-El. Toronto and members have involved themselves in many important causes over the years.

But the project that is most remembered and remarked upon was a seminal event in TE’s history, and that was the rescue of Vietnamese refugees in 1979 when our small congregation sponsored 27 families whose members numbered over 100 people!

As part of commemoration of the Temple’s 60th Anniversary on November 17th, the congregation attended a program celebrating a reunion of some of the “Boat People” families whom the temple helped to sponsor almost 40 years ago. 


It was the summer of ’79 and Carol Tator was chair of the Social Action Committee, when Temple Emanu-El launched one of its most challenging and ambitious social action programs.  The aim was no less than the rescue and sponsorship of Vietnamese men, women and children of ethnic Chinese origin fleeing from persecution, discrimination and expulsion from their homes.  Newspapers showed the refugees crowded onto decrepit boats with inadequate food, water and fuel.  They were drowning; being attacked by pirates who took their few possessions and in some cases murdered them. The lucky ones languished in crowded refugee camps. Few countries were willing to accept them.

The government of Canada began to experience public pressure to take action and rescue some of the refugees and they responded. There was remarkable leadership by Ron Atkey who was Minister of Employment and Immigration under Prime Minister Joe Clark, and he set Canada on the path to accepting tens of thousands of refugees in need of safe haven. Atkey, who died May 9, 2017, at age 75, drastically increased Canada’s intake of “boat people” fleeing war-ravaged Vietnam. In 1979 Atkey committed to taking in 50,000 boat people and within a matter of months, Canada had accepted a total of over 60,000 refugees from Indochina.

Vietnamese have integrated well into Canadian society and have contributed to the country’s political, cultural and sporting life. Today there are approximately 60,000 Vietnamese in Toronto and about 180,000 in Canada. And I’m sure we have all heard or read articles about this community ‘paying it forward’ to help Syrian refugees, one of the current groups requiring assistance. This is indeed, a very Canadian story.

So…the plan that finally developed was that the government would allow for private sponsorship by legally incorporated organizations such as churches and synagogues, etc. Under the leadership of Rabbi Bielfeld, the temple decided to formally apply for immigrant status for refugee families on behalf of sponsoring groups of families in the congregation and twenty-five groups were formed.  It was a huge organizational undertaking and needed dedicated leadership to be implemented.

At the November 17th reunion, Leslie Dan commented on the outstanding leadership of Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld along with the dedication of Mary and Harold Chapman and others in carrying out this enormous mission.

Joan Gitelman, a former member at Temple Emanuel and sponsor, recalled how her group had welcomed a young couple named Hai and Hue Ta with a nine-month-old daughter, who settled in quickly with housing and a job but missed their extended family of parents, grandparents, siblings and nephews in a Hong Kong refugee camp.  Might it be possible, they asked, to bring their family to Canada?  In a few weeks time, with some extraordinary help from the Department of Immigration, the young couple and sponsors assembled at the airport to receive all eleven members, an overwhelming experience for all!

Cam Yen Ta and Jenn La, on behalf of their families, made thoughtful presentations telling of how despite difficult beginnings, successful lives have been built following their parents’ arrival in Canada.  Jenn La in recounting her family’s story, told of the first piece of furniture they received upon arrival, a black dresser in which they kept their clothes, donated by persons unknown. When her mother gave birth to her brother Vincent, a drawer of that dresser, lined with towels became the baby’s crib.  Jenn, a young professional woman continued to say that the dresser is in her home today and she treasures it as a reminder of those early days and the people who lent them a hand.

Sonia Shields whose family sponsored the La family when she was a young girl shared how she was influenced by the social activism of her parents and the strong social action component of temple life to become committed to Tikkun Olam in her work with Syrian refugees.

Lee Weisser, co-chair of the Social Action Committee concluded with suggesting that the committee welcomes anyone interested in involving themselves with current initiatives.   “Come and be a part of the story that continues to say: LITTLE PEOPLE CAN DO BIG THINGS WHEN THEY ARE PART OF A CARING COMMUNITY!”

It was a very special evening, filled with emotional moments recalling hardships and friendships, and one that will long be remembered with affection and appreciation.