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Will Vietnamese fishermen weather the Gulf Coast oil spill?

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I had a moment of déjà vu this weekend when I saw the headline on CNN.com: “Vietnamese fishermen in Gulf fight to not get lost in translation.”  When I interviewed Biloxi, MS, community leader Sharon Hanshaw on May 18, she spoke about the exact same issue—the cultural and language barriers faced by Vietnamese fishermen in the wake of the BP oil spill.

Sharon Hanshaw, right, attends a meeting of grassroots groups, coordinated by Oxfam, at a  church in Boothville, LA. Photo: Audra Melton/Oxfam America
Sharon Hanshaw, right, attends a meeting of grassroots groups, coordinated by Oxfam, at a church in Boothville, LA. Photo: Audra Melton/Oxfam America

“The Vietnamese-American community is the majority of fishermen here. It’s their livelihood,” Hanshaw told me. But, she added, many Vietnamese fishermen don’t have computers or internet access—and key resources, like the BP insurance claims phone line, don’t provide Vietnamese translators.

“In East Biloxi, the Vietnamese community was left out during the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina,” added Hanshaw.  “Many are afraid it will happen again.”

It’s an understandable fear, and it’s not limited to Biloxi. According to CNN’s Jessica Ravitz, “a third of all fishermen in the Gulf are Vietnamese, making them arguably the most affected minority out there.” New Orleans East has the highest concentration of Vietnamese people in the world outside of Vietnam. Many came to the area as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War, and were among those who faced heavy losses during Hurricane Katrina.

Now, the oil spill poses a new threat to Vietnamese-American fishermen, seafood industry workers, restaurateurs, and thousands of others who rely on the Gulf waters for their livelihoods.

Grassroots organizations—like the Vietnamese community groups profiled in the CNN story, as well as Oxfam’s local partners in the region—hold the key to helping fishermen and other vulnerable people make it through this disaster. Many of Oxfam’s partners identified this issue early on, and have been working to address it since the first days of the disaster. From disseminating information about important developments to rallying volunteers to protect their shores, these groups play a crucial role in the response and provide important sources of expertise and experience.

And it’s people who drive these efforts; people who, in the face of a threat that seems to grow almost daily, are determined not to give up on their communities.

 “We are resilient people. We are survivors,” Louisiana Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao, the nation’s first Vietnamese-American congressman, told CNN. “It’s an obstacle in life, and we will overcome it. And we will emerge stronger.”

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