NEW ORLEANS | On a steamy summer morning, Minh Chu normally would be far out in the Gulf, hauling in huge loads of shrimp in the blistering sun. Instead, he’s standing in an alley clutching a paper ticket, surrounded by air as sticky as cotton candy and falling rain — a small measure of how a massive oil spill has shaken up his life.
Mr. Chu is a deckhand, or he was until two months ago when the spill put him out of work. Before that, he had been saving to bring his wife, Nguyen, from Vietnam to America. He also had been sending her money regularly since they wed three years ago. Now he needs help just to buy food.
That’s what brings Mr. Chu this day to a Vietnamese community center, where he’s among dozens of people lined up hours before the 9 a.m. opening when 25 coveted stubs will be exchanged for $100 grocery vouchers from Catholic Charities.
He’s grateful to have made the cut, but anxious, too. Mr. Chu has always worked — he proudly notes that he got his first job in a factory within two weeks of arriving in the U.S. 32 years ago. He can’t bear being idle.
“I feel like I am lost,” said Mr. Chu, 52. “Sometimes I worry and I cannot sleep. I’m thinking about how am I going to make money to sponsor my wife, thinking about how am I going to pay my bills.”
The oil spill that has forced thousands of Gulf fisherman off their boats has been especially cruel to those in the tight-knit Vietnamese community here who find themselves wrestling with cultural and language barriers even as they face the threat of financial disaster — just five years after surviving Hurricane Katrina.
By some accounts, about a third of those trawling the Gulf waters are Southeast Asian, mostly Vietnamese. Some 40,000 Southeast Asians live along the Gulf Coast, according to one nonprofit group, which estimates that 80 percent of them could be hurt by the oil spill. They include fishermen as well as deckhands, shrimp packers, oyster shuckers, and restaurant and hotel workers.
Many of the Vietnamese speak little or no English, making it hard to navigate the bureaucratic maze of loans, claims and regulations. Their odds of finding new jobs are slim, considering the tough economy and their limited language and job skills. For some, there’s yet another hurdle: They’re paid cash, so they don’t have documents needed to apply for compensation from BP PLC’s $20 billion aid fund.
“It is more complicated for them,” said Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corp., which was formed to help the Vietnamese community after Katrina. “But they’re very resilient people, used to rebuilding. They’ve been put to the test several times in their lives. They have a little bit more experience at it.”
For some Vietnamese families who settled in eastern New Orleans, the oil spill marks the fourth turbulent chapter in their lives.
The first occurred when their country split in 1954 and they fled to escape the communist north. Decades later, they were uprooted again as the war ended and Saigon fell in 1975.
In the years after, they began settling in this city with a long Catholic heritage, transferring generations of fishing experience to jobs in their adopted homeland. They bought homes, opened restaurants and grocery stores, and had established a successful community in New Orleans when Katrina blew in, wiping out years of hard work.
Just as some Vietnamese families were getting back onto their feet, they now find themselves scrambling again.
“There’s a saying that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger,” said U.S. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, a Vietnamese-American representing part of the New Orleans area. “I guess from my perspective, because many have encountered these situations before, I think they’re better able to adapt, better able to find solutions.”
The Rev. Vien Nguyen, who traveled the Gulf Coast after Katrina visiting displaced parishioners and urging their return, isn’t totally convinced — not yet.
“Right now, they’re numb,” said the priest, who until recently headed the giant Mary Queen of Vietnam parish, the spiritual center of the community. “With Katrina, after 14 hours we could assess the damage. Here, it’s still continuing. That’s the uncertainty.”
What these families did in the past, he said, isn’t always a barometer of their future.
“They’ve experienced turmoil before and come through it, so there’s a certain confidence they will prevail,” he said. “On the other hand, some people are overwhelmed and I don’t know if they have the time and strength to rebuild. I’m still waiting to see how it turns out.”
Trung Tran already has made up his mind.
The 56-year-old shrimp boat captain bounced back five years ago after his $200,000 boat was smashed to bits in Katrina. He had no insurance, but he didn’t hesitate for a moment. He borrowed $100,000, he said, bought another vessel and within months was back in business.
Mr. Tran has never considered quitting. But now his 85-foot boat, the Midnight Prowler, is docked, his three deckhands are out of work, his wife is job hunting and he feels helpless — he’s hoping to get hired by BP to help with the cleanup. (The oil company has been paying $5,000 a month to captains who file work claims.)
“I’ve got three kids in college. I have lots of bills. This is still my life’s work. This is all I know. I am so sad,” he said through an interpreter.
It’s a sentiment voiced daily among men accustomed to spending long weeks sleeping under the moonlight, now cooped up at home, waiting for answers no one has: When will the mass of molasses-colored oil stop expanding and when, if ever, can they pick up where they left off?
“These men are very, very proud,” said Tuan Nguyen, of the Mary Queen of Vietnam center. “They came here with nothing and worked their butts off. To not be able to work, to have their hands tied, it really gets to them.”
But they rarely let it show. They don’t talk with counselors — the Vietnamese have a stigma about seeking mental health help — and few psychiatrists speak the language. Some also are reluctant to reach out for basic assistance, so they send their wives.
After Katrina, the Vietnamese community joined together to rebuild. It was easy to measure progress, brick by brick.
“They could see their houses go up piece by piece,” said Jennifer Linh Vu, an aide to Mr. Cao. “In one block, people worked on one house at a time. This is different. It’s not something physical they’ve lost this time. It’s more. They can’t go out and buy something and fix it. They’re waiting on someone else to help them and that’s what makes it so hard.”
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