30 years ago, about 1.5 million Vietnamese fled their homeland in tiny boats and overflowing cargo ships. Up to half a million people died and the West was finally forced to act. Thousands of boat people found refuge in Germany. Dam Thanh Tran arrived in Hannover at the end of 1978. He was 14.
One and a half million "boat people" left Vietnam in the 1970s
"There was lots of snow in that winter of 1978. We arrived in early December. At first, we had a kind of cold shock, then we had a kind of culture shock. People here were so tall, so light-skinned -- that was a new experience for us.”
It was strange at first to be in this new country, surrounded by an odd language. But the 14-year-old Dam Thanh Tran was happy. His family had not expected such an outcome just a few weeks earlier.
The Vietnam War came to an end in 1975 with the North’s victory. The Communists then took power all over the country. Because Dam Thanh Tran’s parents had a small shop in the centre of Saigon, South Vietnam’s former capital, the Communists wanted them to leave their house and resettle. They decided to flee.
"I just remember that it was a normal school day. A message came to us in the late afternoon that everything was ready. We were driven to a collection point, where there were other families with children. Next morning, we were ferried over to a big cargo ship that was anchored.“
Fear of persecution greater than that of hunger
The refugees had to escape via a sea route because Vietnam’s neighbouring countries refused to accept them. Their fear they would be persecuted at home was greater than the fear of shipwreck and piracy, or of hunger and thirst. Because they could not carry much at all, Dam Thanh Tran only has a few photos of his life in Vietnam.
He recalls seeing the cargo ship for the first time -- the Hai Hong: “From afar, we could see the masses of people already on board ship -- there was no space for new arrivals, we had to fight to get onto the ship, there were people everywhere, in the cargo holds, on the stairs, everywhere.“
When the ship set sail at the end of September 1978, there were over 2,500 Vietnamese refugees on board -- all sailing into the unknown. Malaysia, Singapore -- they didn’t know where they would end up. After a few weeks of sailing the situation became unbearable:
"It was catastrophic, filthy, the smell was awful because people had sea sickness and would throw up. And there was a constant fear that we would die of hunger if no help came. Two people died -- a child and an elderly woman who were so weak that they couldn’t be saved.”
Suffering hit the headlines
The suffering on the ship made the headlines and provoked sympathy all over the world. The international community was no longer able to look away. At the end of November, the German state of Lower Saxony said it would accept 1,000 refugees, who would be chosen by lottery.
Dam Thanh Tran’s family was lucky. They were allowed off the ship in Malaysia. They could wash and eat. Later, they were flown to Hannover with the other refugees.
"We were excited, we left the ship with happy hearts but we didn’t know what awaited us in Germany. We were just happy to get off the ship.”
A new life awaited the family -- the language, the weather, the food -- everything was different. But there was also a lot of support. Local families helped the refugees carry out administrative procedures, get used to life in Germany generally and to learn the language.
The best of two worlds
30 years later, Dam Thanh Tran has German citizenship and works for a small software development company. He lives with his wife and their two sons in Hannover. They have a normal family life and make the most of both cultures:
"We usually eat Vietnamese at home and speak Vietnamese. We brought up the children bilingually and tried to keep up a living link to Vietnam.“
Dam Thanh Tran has only been to Vietnam once since he left -- for his wedding. He can’t imagine going back for good. But he says he has two homes -- Germany and Vietnam.