Where Are They Now? From Saigon to the Sea of Galilee

Israel may be ‘a very strange land,’ but for a family of Vietnamese refugees it has become home.

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Nee Wong first began to suspect that her parents were planning to flee Vietnam when they suddenly enrolled her in a swimming course – “so that I wouldn’t drown at sea if the boat capsized,” explains the petite, elegantly dressed woman with short black hair. But Wong, who was 14, never expected to end up in Israel. “It was a land I thought existed only in Biblical stories,” recalls the 48-year-old Vietnamese-born Christian.

Wong and her family were among the approximately 350 Vietnamese refugees – or “boat people” as they came to be known – who were taken in by Israel between 1977 and 1979.

Many countries were reluctant to offer refuge to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who fled in the wake of the Communist takeover of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and often drifted at sea in rickety boats for weeks. Israel – in sharp contrast to its current policy toward the stream of migrants from Africa – said yes. In fact, Menachem Begin’s first act as prime minister in 1977 was to grant refugee status to 66 stranded boat people, explaining that Jews know what it means to be a refugee.

In 1979, Wong, her three sisters and their parents, who are ethnically Chinese, were part of another group of 100 Vietnamese given a chance to start a new life in what turned out to be, for many, a very strange land.

“We knew that a lot of cities around the world had a Chinatown, but in Afula, where they settled us, there was nothing like that of course – no Chinese products, no Chinese newspapers, no one who spoke the language. It was a hole in the middle of nowhere,” recounts Wong.

“We used our hands to communicate at first,” she says, recalling how one person, seeking a toothbrush, pointed first to a floor mop and then to his teeth to make his wish known to staff at the immigrant absorption center, where they lived. “But people were warm and good to us,” she says. “I never felt any racism.”

Thirty four years later, Nee Wong lives in Poriya, a rural community near Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with her husband, Yom, also a Vietnamese refugee, and their three children. Yom owns and runs a Chinese restaurant in Haifa. Nee, who is fluent in English, Hebrew, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese, works as a tour guide leading groups of Chinese tourists, especially evangelical Christians from the U.S., Europe, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“As a Christian myself, I can really make the Holy Land come alive for them – it’s like presenting the Bible in 3-D,” says Wong, whose family were among the small number of Christians within the predominantly Buddhist group of refugees from Vietnam.

The Wong  family at the military convocation ceremony of one of their children.
A different era for refugees in Israel: Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Afula in 1977.
Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.
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The Wong family at the military convocation ceremony of one of their children.Credit: Courtesy
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A different era for refugees in Israel: Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Afula in 1977.Credit: GPO
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Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.Credit: wikimedia
Wong Vietnam boat people refugees

She tries to show tourists the cultural similarities between Israelis and Chinese. “The importance of roots, and passing on traditions from generation to generation – that’s something the Chinese can relate to and value.”

In fact, in many respects Wong’s own life in Israel is a kind of cultural juggling act – celebrating the Chinese New Year, decorating a Christmas tree, and raising children who serve in the army and speak Hebrew like sabras.

“I’m like a bridge between my parents who are Chinese, and my children who feel totally Israeli,” she says. “Sometimes I am pulled from both sides.”

Names is a case in point. Wong and her husband gave their children traditional Chinese names: Tzivin, Tziman and Tziyan. All three incorporate the word “goal” or “determination” in their shared prefix, a link that can help future generations more easily trace genealogy.

“But once my children entered school, they wanted to have Hebrew names like all the other kids, and I couldn’t deny them that. So today they are Shahar, Ortal and Zohar,” she shrugs. “But we’ve kept their Chinese names as middle names.”

Wong has raised her children, aged 23, 21 and 13, to relate differently to Chinese acquaintances – “they must show deference and never call an adult by his first name." As for Israelis, she says “it’s fine to be casual and direct” with them.

She has visited Vietnam twice. In 2006 she went there on a roots trip with her three sisters – two of whom live in Israel and one in Singapore – to see their old family home in Saigon. She describes the trip as “a wonderful nostalgic experience.”

The family is probably the only residents of Poriya who will be celebrating the Chinese New Year next week. But for all the strangeness of Israel, Wong says that today she feels very much like she “belongs here.” She describes with pride that her son, Shahar, was named outstanding soldier in his unit, and that like him, her daughter, Ortal, is also an officer in the IDF.

“As a guide when I speak about things Israel has done, I find myself saying ‘we did this, and we did that.’”

On the other hand, Wong is stumped when Israelis ask her the meaning of her own first name, Nee. “It is something like manners, politeness and tranquility, all in one. But, as you can imagine, there is no such word in Hebrew for these things.”

Nee Wong, one of some 350 "boat people" who found refuge in Israel. Credit: Michal Fattal

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