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New UCI Class Seeks Help for Refugees

April 24, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET

A new class, designed to let students earn college credit while becoming political activists on behalf of Vietnamese refugees, started at UC Irvine this quarter.

The class, initiated by UCI graduate student Tom Wilson, was inspired by the Santa Ana-based Project Deliverance and the San Diego-based Boat People SOS Committee, two groups seeking to help people who flee the Communist regime in Vietnam.

The purpose of the class, Wilson said, is to mobilize support for people who escape Vietnam only to be victimized by Thai pirates, warring factions in Kampuchea and Thailand, and a system that often keeps refugees trapped in Southeast Asian camps for years.

Wilson, a former elementary school teacher who is working on a master's degree in mathematics but may switch to public health studies, said he sought faculty support for the class because of his increasing awareness of Vietnamese refugees' problems. For years, he said, close Vietnamese friends have told him harrowing stories about their escape from Vietnam.

"I started realizing that some of the most important people in my life could have been victims of the pirates or sold into prostitution," he said.

John Liu, a UCI assistant professor of comparative culture, said he authorized a few students majoring in social sciences to take part in the new class because it will allow them to "become more active in their communities" by learning "about the experiences of Vietnamese refugees in transit from Vietnam to other areas of Southeast Asia." His students will also write academic papers on what they learn, Liu said.

Wilson originally believed he had faculty support for the class as an independent-study biology course. More than 90 students tried to enroll through the biology department.

Not for Research

The course was not accepted as a biology class because it has "no laboratory research component," said Wendell Stanley, an associate dean of undergraduate affairs in the School of Biological Sciences.

However, Stanley said the class seems to be a worthwhile project, and "what we're trying to find out is, will it fly under a different flag?"

Wilson said that while most of the participating students would like to earn college credits for their work, an additional 50 students are already participating as non-credit-earning volunteers.

Unofficially known as "Project Ngoc," the class was named after a young girl, a character in a short story Wilson wrote based on Vietnamese boat people's testimony about horrors they face when they flee their homeland.

That story, which Wilson photocopied and distributed on campus this spring, was partly responsible for a large turnout at the first class meeting.

Left as Children

Most students who attended were Vietnamese who left home when they were children.

"I've been through all this before; all these things are true," said Linh Vu, 18, after watching a videotape of boat people being rescued.

A freshman biology student, Vu said that when he left Vietnam by boat in 1978 with his family, he went through "almost the same thing"--of drifting and running out of food and water--as the boat people in the film.

Those on Vu's boat were robbed by fishermen-turned-pirates. However, unlike many of today's pirates, the men who attacked his boat "didn't really torture us," Vu said.

Dangerous Journey on Land

Terrible as a boat journey away from Vietnam may be, a refugee's flight by land through Kampuchea to Thailand may be even worse, Wilson said. "A few of the boat people get through relatively unscathed, but virtually every woman is raped who goes by land. It's virtually impossible to get through (Kampuchea) without being intercepted by either the communists or the guerrilla fighters, and we don't even know what happens if the Khmer Rouge gets them (the Vietnamese refugees)."

If Vietnamese refugees get to a camp like Dong Ruk, Wilson said, their difficulties are far from over.

According to Terri Kratovil, a spokeswoman for the Washington office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Vietnamese are still fleeing their homeland in large numbers.

Fewer Going to Thailand

However, Kratovil said, U.N. statistics show that only about 32,000 Vietnamese boat people reached Thailand in 1986, as compared to about 140,000 at the migration's peak in 1979. In 1986, 718 Vietnamese land refugees arrived in Thailand, Kratovil said, compared to 2,516 in 1979.

Eight refugee camps, sponsored by the high commissioner, still operate in Thailand.

According to another U.N. spokesman, 12 other camps not under high commissioner control but receiving some U.N. services, line the Thai-Kampuchean border. These camps serve as holding points for 3,295 Vietnamese and 261,687 Kampucheans classified as illegal aliens by the Thai government.

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