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Vietnamese shrimpers face financial ruin after oil spill

The Vietnamese are estimated to be about half the total fishing community along the Gulf Coast. Many rebuilt their livelihoods after Hurricane Katrina. They don't know if they can do it again.

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- They came here seeking refuge, but the past few years have brought unexpected hardship to the tightly knit Vietnamese fishing community.

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They arrived after the fall of Saigon in 1975, lured by the city's tropical climate and strong Catholic heritage. Shrimping and fishing in the Gulf Coast's bountiful bayous was one of the few familiar touchstones for these mostly unskilled laborers with little English.

An estimated 20,000 Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers live along the Gulf Coast -- about half of the total fishing community -- and many more work at the seafood processing plants, wholesalers and po-boy shops found at every traffic light. Now the sanctuary they found and the lives they built -- and rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina -- are threatened by the hemorrhaging oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Many Vietnamese worry they will not have the energy to start over yet again.

"When I came to Louisiana, this was how people here made a living. I had to follow," 50-year-old shrimper Dung Nguyen says in Vietnamese. "I don't know how I'm going to live."

Nguyen says he has no idea whether life is harder for him than for American shrimpers; he doesn't know any to ask. All he knows is that his wife, their five daughters, his mother-in-law and his granddaughter -- all of whom live with him in a modest rented home in the industrial eastern edge of New Orleans -- are counting on him for survival.

That's why he got up before dawn last week to stand in line for a food voucher with dozens of other out-of-work Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers in the concrete alley in front of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church's community office. The wait can last five, six, even seven hours.

Oversleepers are turned away before they even make it inside.

"If you're a little bit late . . . ," Nguyen warns in Vietnamese, shaking his head.

He knows because he showed up after 5 a.m. for two days and missed out on a $100 grocery store gift certificate, 20 of which are handed out every morning. It is 8:30 a.m. and the office has yet to open, but he is hoping the third time is the charm. Besides, he says, he has nothing to do all day but sit around and think -- about having no work, no money and no options.

Normally Nguyen is on a boat this time of year, coming ashore for a home visit about once a month. His wife, Ut, makes shrimp nets, and his oldest daughter, Lisa, 20, fixes trawls and cleans boats. Now they are all unemployed.

"Get in a straight line, please," a woman calls out in English to the group, mostly men, milling about the alley as staffers open the office door.

The Vietnamese quickly flatten themselves along the wall as aid workers hand out numbered tickets for vouchers to the first in line. Dung secures one, as does his wife, even though the vouchers are technically limited to one per family. Because so many Vietnamese share the same last name and the community is so intertwined, the rule is tough to enforce.


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