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Vietnam Aid Efforts Becoming Tougher Sell

October 29, 2000|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaders of Vietnamese groups trying to raise funds for their flood-ravaged homeland are changing the way they seek donations because the local community has grown increasingly wary about such pitches.

They are giving badges and passwords to volunteers who take coded donation boxes to Vietnamese businesses, escorted by other volunteers who videotape the transactions.

And at a free concert today in Westminster, guards will be on hand as dozens of entertainers circulate donation boxes among the crowd in an effort to ensure security, said Steve Linh Nguyen, chairman of a committee organizing the fund-raiser.

An estimated 10,000 people are expected to attend the show from 2 to 8 p.m. at the New Saigon Mall on Bolsa Avenue to hear more than 80 Vietnamese American entertainers, including well-known singers Nhu Quynh and Vu Khanh.

Nguyen and others say the effort to demonstrate accountability stems from mounting public perception that previous donations for a host of causes may have benefited organizers or fallen into improper hands, especially those of Communist government officials in Vietnam.

"I feel like I got robbed once, so I'm very careful this time," said Tri Vo, a Garden Grove resident who gave $50 during a 53-day protest that began in January 1999, when a Westminster businessman put up a Communist flag in his video store.

Protest leader Tuan Anh Ho, who raised at least $265,000 during the angry, sometimes violent demonstrations, bought a building on Harbor Boulevard for $310,000 under the name of his Committee for Just Cause of Free Vietnam. Ho calls it a cultural center. Except for two Ping-Pong tables and photographs of the protests, however, it remains largely empty.

"I put in money last year and it was used to buy a building," said Tan Nguyen, 59, who spent days and nights at the flag protest and stuffed $10 into one of the bright yellow donation boxes. She thought her contribution was paying for food and hot cocoa to protesters.

This time, the Westminster baby-sitter decided her $20 donation for flood victims would go through her Westminster church.

"I'm scared. I don't trust anyone anymore, even though $20 is a small amount," she said.

Flood relief committee organizer Nguyen said such reactions are why "we are much stricter this time."

"We want to be very careful to protect our integrity and reputation," he said. "We want the public to trust us."

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Money raised at the concert and from collection boxes distributed around the Vietnamese community in recent weeks is intended for victims of last month's massive Mekong Delta floods, which killed more than 500 people, mostly children under 4.

September's deluges have been the worst to hit the region southwest of Ho Chi Minh City in more than four decades, destroying 500,000 homes in 10 provinces, Vietnamese authorities have said. Two million people sought refuge on straw rooftops or on dikes.

News of their plight has circulated on Vietnamese language television and radio. People in Vietnam also have contacted relatives overseas, many of them in Orange County, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.

Over the last few weeks, more than 200 volunteers from 23 religious and nonprofit organizations in Southern California have been placing the coded donation boxes at supermarkets, fabric stores, doctor's offices and other businesses in Westminster, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. Sympathetic elders have turned over part of their Social Security checks, manicurists have donated their tips, and students have given part of their school loan funds to churches and temples.

"They are our brothers and sisters," said organizer Cang Nguyen, who will perform with his band, the Moonflowers. "There are people suffering and I can't ignore them."

Organizers hope to raise at least $100,000 this weekend. Events began Friday with an all-night vigil at the Nguyen Ba Hoc Cultural Center in Westminster that was attended by about 70 people. Religious leaders prayed in front of an altar, and when a slide show depicted flooded homes and children wading through muddy waters, a hush fell over the crowd.

Today's concert is another tried and true method of raising money in the Vietnamese community.

Such concerts have been held before, most recently as part of an effort to raise about $500,000 for a memorial statue depicting a soldier from the former South Vietnam alongside an American in uniform. But now that organizers of that fund-raising effort are seeking a nearly equal sum to prepare the site in Westminster, some are feeling tapped out and generally concerned about where donations land.

And just last winter, major drives were held for victims of November flooding in Vietnam.

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Relief campaigns can be problematic because people are effectively giving small sums "blindly," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Maryland-based charity watchdog group.

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